Thomas and his attorney, Robert “Cowboy Bob” Clark, had held a news conference to denounce the charges when they were filed. While speaking with the press in front of the jail, police walked up to Thomas, tapped him on the shoulder and took him into custody. He was released within hours on $287,500 bond.
The indictment accused Thomas of kidnapping, extortion, assault, sexual abuse and sodomy involving nine different jail prisoners who had previously appeared before him on criminal charges when he was on the bench. One defendant went before Thomas repeatedly before he was sentenced to prison; Thomas later ordered his early release, according to the Mobile Press-Register. A second indictment issued in August 2009 added more charges. After some of the charges were dropped, Thomas faced a total of 103 counts involving 14 victims.
Thomas had a furnished storage room set up as an office near his chambers in the courthouse, where he forced prisoners to expose their bare buttocks for “paddling and/or whipping,” the indictment alleged. Several victims testified in affidavits and in court that Thomas asked to paddle them and engage in sexual encounters in the make-shift office. [See: PLN, Aug. 2009, p.6; Feb. 2008, p.30].
On March 9, 2009, Mobile County Circuit Court Judge Joseph “Rusty” Johnston had issued an order barring Thomas from his courtroom, writing that during Thomas’ tenure on the bench he had “used his office to threaten criminal defendants with jail time, penitentiary time and probation revocations if they did not engage in sexual acts with him.” Judge Johnston attached a disc under seal that contained “the interviews of three criminal defendants who [said they] were subjected to” such abuse by Thomas. On appeal, the Alabama Supreme Court declined to overturn Johnston’s order.
Thomas denied the charges. While he admitted to removing young men from the jail and taking them to his office, he said he was counseling them to help them straighten out their lives. His attorney attacked the victims who had accused the former judge, all of whom had criminal records. “Everybody that’s listed in the indictment is either serving life for murder or some other horrible crime,” Clark said.
“This is racism at its very finest,” he added. “Did you ever think of the fact that this is the only black circuit judge we’ve ever had in Mobile County and that the right-wing Republicans have gotten rid of him?” Characterizing the charges as “a high-tech lynching,” Clark suggested that “the South hasn’t changed all that much.” He vowed to “fight till the last dog falls.”
Mobile County District Attorney John Tyson, Jr. scoffed at the charge of racism. “In this case, as in every case, we try to react to the law and facts, and that’s all,” he said. “Anything else is outside our authority. I can assure anybody that’s interested that this is not being pursued for some racial agenda.” All of Thomas’s accusers were black.
Rather than answer an ethics complaint, Thomas had stepped down from the bench in October 2007. The complaint was dismissed after Thomas resigned; it did not allege any sexual abuse, but accused Thomas of “extrajudiciary personal contact” with defendants. His law license was suspended by the Alabama State Bar.
Eighty-two of the charges in the indictments were dropped before Thomas’ trial, including all charges related to three of the victims. Some were dropped by the district attorney’s office and others were dismissed by the court. Amid extensive local media coverage, Thomas went to trial on the remaining 21 charges on October 7, 2009.
Prosecutors portrayed Thomas as having a “Dr. Jekyll, Mr. Hyde” persona – a prominent and respected authority figure in his public life, and a sexual deviant who took advantage of vulnerable jail prisoners to satisfy his private desires. Thomas’ attorneys painted the prisoners who said they had been victimized by Thomas as lying criminals. “He ain’t no pervert,” Clark said in his closing statement.
The last dog fell on October 26 when the jury returned a verdict of not guilty on seven of the charges and deadlocked on the remaining 14, which the trial court then threw out due to insufficient evidence.
The jury sided with Thomas despite testimony from the victims, DNA reports that semen from two of the prisoners had been found on the carpet in the judge’s office, and testimony from one of the victim’s mothers who said Thomas had asked her during a phone conversation for permission to paddle her adult son.
“We are extremely disappointed,” said Tyson. “We worked very hard in this case and we did what we thought was the right thing.”
Three of the jurors later came forward with concerns about the verdict, saying the jury had reached a unanimous decision on only two of the seven charges where they had found Thomas not guilty. However, one of those jurors was unclear about the jury’s deliberations and the other two refused to sign affidavits attesting to problems with the verdict. Prosecutors had failed to poll the jury at the conclusion of the trial.
The district attorney’s office decided not to pursue the matter. “This case is over,” said Tyson. “Congratulations to Mr. Thomas and to his legal staff.”
Notwithstanding the not-guilty verdict, the Alabama State Bar is trying to revoke Thomas’ law license, claiming he engaged in unprofessional conduct when he checked prisoners out of the jail and intervened in their cases.
Sources: CNN, Mobile Press-Register, www.al.com, Birmingham News
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