Thomas's exit from bench
a play without resolution?
By Chip Drago
Mobile Bay Times
Although 17 months have passed since the "Hon. Herman Young Thomas" resigned from the circuit court bench here aborting a public trial on charges of judicial misconduct, leaving the allegations to linger, the Alabama Bar Association member directory continues to bestow the honorific.
And, indeed, Thomas still cuts a stylish, bow-tied legal figure about town, appearing in courtrooms, both federal and state, at political events, bar socials and in television commercials in behalf of The Brandyburg Group where he has a private legal practice.
Even so, the road ahead may include some bumps.
Thomas' sudden resignation/retirement Oct. 1, 2007 may not have wrapped up his judicial career in a neat package stored and forgotten in a back room of recent history. And, if so, the package may be ticking.
Threads continue to unravel as first this defendant -- Douglas Martin Hill -- and then that ex-prosecutor -- John Furman -- surface in ways that raise more questions about Thomas and the criminal justice system here.
The allegations against Thomas ranged from poaching cases off other circuit judges' dockets and altering sentences to taking inmates from jail on outings that sometimes included "paddling" sessions in a secluded second office the judge kept at the courthouse. Why the prisoners would submit to paddling, what advantage they may have gained for consenting versus what additional penalty they may have incurred for refusing, has never been explained.
Did his resignation close the book on Thomas's actions as a judge? Perhaps, even probably, not. Not as long as the defendants who got justice at Thomas's hands are in the system or on the streets.
Hill's is hardly the only name from Thomas's judicial past. Names other than Hill's may be heard from again. Possibly among them, names such as Julius Jermaine Riggins, Roderick Henderson, Brandon Carr, Mitee Meadry, Thaddeus Tomas Hale, Jimmie Gardner, Michael Anderson, Willie Pearson, Adrian Gardner, Jarrod Keith Brown, Antjuan Leviosa Slone, Corey Diamond, Bobby Crook, Willie Baker, Fred Bryant, Benjamin Kitt, Reginald McCarty, Frederick Hendon, Lawardwick Jones, Akil Figures, Gary Blunt, Nathaniel Agee, Kinta Todd, Jermaine Jones, John Richardson, Bryan Davis, Edward Lane, Kelinell White, Tavorris Freeman, Timothy Meadry, Jacques Sullivan. A litany of names and likely dozens of others, any one or more of whom could spring up suddenly without warning like whack-a-mole as the criminal justice system here navigates a future weighted with Thomas's judicial past.
Or the unfinished business of the Court of the Judiciary could resume in another venue, airing problems wholesale rather than piecemeal.
One longtime criminal defense attorney sees political partisanship, perhaps even a witch hunt, in the eagerness to further hound Thomas. A sensational prosecution founded on the veracity of a gaggle of petty criminals is a precarious adventure, he suggested.
"This thing has been punted back and forth between larger state and federal players," he said. "The consensus has always been that they really need a lot more than the word of a few miscreants to bring a prosecution of a judge who is seen by many to be the victim of a vendetta within the court house. It's my impression that they've been figuring out ways to corroborate what their witnesses are alleging and that a shoe will drop. When? Who knows? What's the rush?"
Still, the criminal justice community rumbles periodically like a waking volcano. Charged with murder in a Grand Bay killing at Thanksgiving, Hill pops up with a rap sheet that raises questions about the sentencing authority -- Thomas ordered Hill's release from custody on at least five occasions, according to court records -- as much as it addresses the criminal history of the defendant (see Press-Register article "Crime and Leniency" of Jan. 11, 2009). Then Furman, a veteran prosecutor under District Attorney John Tyson Jr., slams his former boss asserting that politics, not justice, guide the DA's handling of issues surrounding Thomas's judicial conduct (see Lagniappe article of Jan. 27, 2009).
"Contrary to what Furman says, I don't think the matter has been at all dormant," the defense attorney maintained. "Now, that's not to say that local and national politics may have made the calculus a bit more difficult to figure out. I do know that the finger-pointers (prosecutors) of all stripes, even his best friends, are irked at Furman for (stirring the pot) and taking some cheap shots at Tyson."
With the election of Barack Obama, the U.S. Attorney's office here is nearing a change in leadership. The frontrunner for appointment as U.S. Attorney is Vicki Davis, an assistant federal prosecutor who served as a state prosecutor under Tyson and took Thomas's seat on the district court bench when he was elevated to the circuit bench. Davis lost her Democratic bid for election to the judgeship to Republican nominee Charles McKnight.
Thomas's brethren on the circuit bench had urged the Court of the Judiciary to resolve the charges against their colleague in public, not through some plea bargain or private settlement that left the public wondering at the expense of the Mobile court's credibility. But the court lost jurisdiction when Thomas resigned his judgeship. Many questions were left unanswered as Thomas returned to Mobile absent his robe, but free to return to the legal system as a lawyer.
Although authorities have been reluctant to address the situation with Thomas, Tyson has confirmed an investigation, but nothing beyond that. The FBI, the office of Alabama Attorney General Troy King and the Mobile County Bar Association may be examining the ex-judge's record as well.
In a politically delicate case, federal authorities often take the lead with state and local agencies and professional associations trailing close behind. The FBI's customary investigative pace ranges between stately and glacial.
About 2-1/2 years have passed since Thomas himself asked the Judicial Inquiry Commission to investigate him, presumably believing an exoneration would result. In mid-August 2006, Thomas called for an investigation after denying the claims of two Mobile city judges that he prompted the expungement of a 1998 DUI arrest of his cousin, David Thomas, who ultimately was impeached from his seat on the Mobile County Board of School Commissioners. Judge Thomas said the investigation was necessary in order to restore the public's confidence in his own judgeship as well as in Mobile's entire judiciary.
Thomas's path to the bench was short, occurring just three years after his admission to the bar and with only two years as an assistant district attorney; and sweet, no election campaign required as the Democrat was tapped for the judgeship by a Republican governor. Presented with a list of three Democrats from which to choose a replacement for the late District Judge Nick Kearney, Guy Hunt picked Thomas in 1990.
At his swearing-in ceremony, Thomas pledged to make everyone proud. For a long time and in a number of ways, the young judge appeared to live up to his promise. Thomas's community involvement was probably without precedent by any previous judge. From charities to boards, to educational initiatives and fraternal organizations, Thomas was a constant.
Something of a mentor for Thomas, former Mobile County District Attorney Chris Galanos hired him as an assistant in the district attorney's office in 1988.
At some point in his career as a judge, Thomas changed, according to Galanos, who also served as a circuit judge and has himself endured public notoriety stemming from an addiction to prescription drugs and a couple of domestic dust-ups in which there were no significant injuries.
Galanos emphasized that he had no knowledge "pro or con" related to any of the specific allegations against Thomas.
"In my opinion Herman's personality changed when he became a circuit judge and I found him to be somewhat arbitrary and heavy-handed in his decision-making," said Galanos who represented clients in civil cases before Thomas.
"I hired Herman when he graduated from Florida State," said Galanos. "I gave him his first job as an Alabama lawyer. He was an assistant district attorney and he did an excellent job."
Galanos said he recalls advertising executive/political consultant Bill Yeager "getting me and a couple of other folks" to help Thomas when he faced election to the judgeship.
"I did it gladly," said Galanos. "I distinctly remember doing one or two TV spots for Herman. I consider him a friend. I have never asked nor shall I ever ask what it is he allegedly did wrong. All I know is his personality seemed to change."
"A good judge does not relish power," said Galanos. "A good judge at times fears the power that he has because of the impact of his decisions."
After 15 years as district attorney, GaIanos spent five years as a circuit judge and never checked an inmate out of jail, he said. Such an action by a judge, if it occurred, is hard to fathom, said Galanos.
Even if Thomas acted improperly, his intentions most probably were good, according to Galanos.
"I never heard anybody ever say Herman put a dime in his pocket," said Galanos. "That's one allegation I've never heard. As it relates to the allegations of the spanking, his motives may have been pure but the methods clearly disallowed, if that happened."
"I think parts of the community still have a high regard for Herman," said Galanos. "Blacks, I've come to believe, are more forgiving than white people and especially as it would relate to another African American. That's just my opinion."
At least one African American years ago went on record as doubting Thomas's good intentions.
In the fall of 2002, convicted murderer Michael Dewayne Anderson charged that authorities were "fully aware of Judge Herman Thomas continually going to the Mobile County Metro Jail, and getting teenage boys out for a paddling on their butt. I know of teenage boys with trafficking cases that pulled down their pants and took a paddling, and agreed to spend time with Judge Herman Thomas and he put them on the streets free."
The inmate sued Thomas for "bad faith, fraud and misrepresentation" in his judicial role.
Anderson complained that Thomas pressured him for a personal relationship after his release from prison in 1994. In support of his claims, he supplied four affidavits, his own and those of three other lawbreakers who swore that Thomas took extraordinary liberties with his authority from the bench to the jail and into the community itself.
Anderson is a convicted murderer and a career criminal. The other three also have criminal records of various lengths.
"... he (Thomas) advised me that if trouble came he could help, but if I refused him, he could make it hard for me and Judge Thomas has made it hard from District Court to the Circuit Court ..." Anderson stated.
Three of Anderson's fellow outlaws offered sworn statements about their own alleged experiences with the judge.
The late Judge Robert G. Kendall, then presiding judge of Mobile County Circuit Court, dismissed the complaint six seconds after it was filed, according to court records.
Anderson attempted to revive the case in federal court on Dec. 12, 2003. Senior U.S. District Judge W. Brevard Hand dismissed that complaint as well, although in a more leisurely 39 days.
One of the three members in Anderson's chorus, John Richardson has a rap sheet replete with property crimes between 1999-2002.
"When I used to be in the Mobile County Metro Jail, it was sad to hear the young dope dealers out of Toulminville and Prichard saying that they were going to take a paddling on their butts from Judge Thomas to be released," Richardson said in his Nov. 26, 2002 affidavit. "They would call Judge Thomas at his home like this was just something to do, but he would come just as they said he would. This court only has to check the records of the Mobile County Metro Jail, and the truth will come to light."
Gary Blunt's record verily shouts "thief," with burglary, robbery, receiving stolen property and theft of property appearing regularly between 1997-2006.
"(Thomas) knew that I was on probation from New York," Blunt swore in his Oct. 10, 2002 statement. "He always told me that I would need his help in the long run, and it would be good to have him in my corner. I tried to explain to him that I didn't indulge in that type activity ..., so at some point, he became angry with me ... and said he would make sure that I went to prison. He didn't lie. Herman Thomas sent me to prison."
Nathaniel Agee Jr., now 31, also numbers property crimes on his record.
In his sworn statement on Nov. 22, 2002, Agee said he and Thomas "started off going fishing together, hanging out together; he would even drop by my house early some morning and say he wanted to talk. He gave me money when I was in jail, and even got me out of jail when I promised that we could spend time together."
Agee claimed Prichard police ripped off him "and some other fellows, saying that it was dope money." Agee agreed to cooperate with federal authorities investigating the incident, he said.
Agee alleged that Thomas told him not to testify against the Prichard officers, but "I did testify ... and when Judge Thomas found out about it, he told me that I would be going to prison, so get ready. ... he was going to sentence me the way that he wanted, and that he did."
"Judge Thomas takes advantage of young men's lives with his power of the court, and it's hard to get around him if you're on his docket," Agee stated.
"All these people are not just making up things to say about this same Judge Thomas ...," Anderson asserted. "If it takes the news stations, newspapers or any way that I have to (I will) make sure that justice is served on Judge Thomas. If the Federal Bureau of Investigation has to come in and get the records to prove this case, that will have to be done."
"This judge has a pattern ...," the inmate charged. "But justice will catch up with this situation in the end."
Experience has taught court personnel to regard the claims of criminals with great skepticism.
However, as prosecutors regularly argue when using malefactors as witnesses, it is the criminals themselves, not law-abiding citizens, who generally have first-hand knowledge of wrongdoing.
Thomas did not return a call for comment. However, in his answer to the JIC complaint, Thomas denied violating judicial ethics, though his response, while absolute, did not go to the specifics of the charges.