Ala. judge cleared of sex abuse in inmate spanking
MOBILE, Ala. — A former Alabama judge was cleared Monday of charges that he spanked and sexually abused male inmates.
Former Mobile County Circuit Judge Herman Thomas was found not guilty on seven counts after more than a week of testimony. Judge Claud Neilson threw out the remaining 14 charges.
Thomas wept and hugged his wife and supporters after the judge threw out the remaining charges. He left court without comment. As he left, one supporter threw her hands in the air and shouted, "Thank you Jesus." Other supporters gathered in a circle to pray.
Defense attorneys had painted the 48-year-old as a prominent civic leader who became a victim of felons who lied about him to manipulate the court system.
Prosecutors said Thomas brought 11 young male inmates to a private courthouse office and severely paddled their bare bottoms for sexual gratification. Some of the inmates testified they had sexual contact with the judge.
Defense attorney Jeff Deen said Neilson's decision to toss the remaining charges was not surprising because the jurors had acquitted Thomas on every charge where they could reach a .unanimous decision.
Deen said Thomas' next goal is to regain his law license, which has been suspended by the Alabama State Bar. That could take months, Deen said.
District Attorney John Tyson said, "We are extremely disappointed. We worked very hard in this case and we did what we thought was the right thing." He said it was a difficult case because young men with criminal records were testifying against a well-known community leader, and the jury verdict reflected that.
"We went with the people we had," he said.
Carol Meeks of Mobile, a Thomas supporter who sat through the three-week trial, said she agreed with defense attorneys that Thomas was targeted by lying felons.
"He's a very good man and he's done a lot for this community. We need more people like him who look out for young people in our community," she said.
The jury of seven women and five men heard seven days of testimony before beginning deliberations late Thursday afternoon over charges of sex abuse, second-degree assault, sodomy and attempted sodomy.
Before the trial, prosecutors indicated that other inmates had been spanked, but were not included in the charges against the judge. Tyson said he has no plans to try to bring additional charges involving other young inmates.
Judge Neilson said he threw out charges of second-degree assault because the assault must be committed with a dangerous weapon or instrument. "The use of a paddle or belt in this case is not a dangerous weapon," he said.
He said prosecutors lacked evidence to support the sex abuse and attempted sodomy charges.
Early in the trial, Neilson told prosecutors he did not think they had brought the correct charges. When he threw out the remaining assault charges Monday, he said he probably should have dismissed them before sending the case to the jury, but he felt the jury should review them.
During closing arguments, prosecutor Nicki Patterson portrayed Thomas as a "Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde" figure who carefully crafted an image as a mentor to troubled youth, while secretly paddling and sexually abusing young inmates for pleasure.
Defense attorney Robert "Cowboy Bob" Clark described Thomas as the victim of lying felons.
"He ain't no pervert," Clark told the jury in closing arguments.
Thomas was a Mobile County judge for 17 years, so popular that Alabama's top Democrats once recommended him to become the first black federal judge in south Alabama. He was one of the most well known men in Mobile, serving as trustee of two colleges, frequently speaking to church and youth groups and organizing mentoring programs for young people.
He resigned his judgeship in 2007 after a state judicial panel accused him of unethical conduct. A grand jury indicted him in the spring on felony charges accusing him of severely paddling and sexually abusing young men who appeared before him in court.
Some of the men testified he picked them up at jail, took them to a private office in the courthouse and gave them the choice of going back to jail or going free by taking a paddling with their pants and underwear down. They said they complied and took several strikes from the judge.
Some men testified they turned around during the paddlings to see the judge sexually aroused or exposed. One testified the judge made him masturbate, and a forensic scientist reported finding the man's semen on the judge's carpet. Another former inmate said the judge tried to force him to have oral sex.
The defense presented a Roman Catholic archbishop, a youth minister and two school principals who described Thomas' many hours of youth work.
"For that good deed, he gets a 103-count indictment," Clark said.
Those 103 counts were reduced by four-fifths before the case went to the jury because the prosecution dropped charges involving four of the 15 men named in the indictment and the judge threw out all extortion, kidnapping and ethics charges.
District Attorney Says Herman Thomas Case Is Not Over
Thomas Juror Speaks Out, By Peter Teske, Web Exclusive, www.lagniappemobile.com, October 29, 2009
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