Ala. judge cleared in inmate paddling

October 26, 2009 2:24:01 PM PDT
A former Alabama judge was cleared Monday of charges accusing him of paddling and sexually abusing male inmates.Former Mobile County Circuit Judge Herman Thomas was found not guilty on seven counts after more than a week of testimony. A judge threw out the remaining 14 charges.

Defense attorneys had painted the 48-year-old as a prominent civic leader who became a victim of felons lying 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.

The jury of seven women and five men listened to seven days of testimony before beginning deliberations late Thursday afternoon over charges of sex abuse, second-degree assault, sodomy and attempted sodomy.

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.

"We see a double life -- a hidden life," she said.

Defense attorney Robert "Cowboy Bob" Clark described Thomas as the victim of lying felons who were unhappy with the punishments he gave them.

"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.

In closing arguments, prosecutor Barry Matson yanked off his black belt, doubled it over and waved it in front of the jury.

"What choice did they have?" he asked.

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 got 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.

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