MONTGOMERY, Ala. – Herman Thomas had an enviable political record as a black Democrat elected and re-elected in a county overwhelmingly white and increasingly Republican. The respected circuit judge once was the Democratic Party's choice to be the first black federal judge in south Alabama.
Then his career collapsed under allegations that he brought inmates to his office and spanked them with a paddle. Later, an indictment accused him of sexually abusing male inmates in exchange for leniency. The trial on charges of sodomy, kidnapping, sex abuse, extortion, assault and ethics violations is set to start Monday.
The case has shocked Thomas' friends and former colleagues.
"I've always had the highest regard for him. The allegations were a complete surprise to me and everyone else who knew him," said Bob Edington, a prominent Mobile attorney and former Democratic state senator.
Thomas stepped down from the bench in 2007 after the allegations of paddling surfaced and just ahead of a judicial ethics trial that could have forced him out of office. He was indicted on the more-serious charges this past spring by a Mobile County grand jury. If convicted of the most serious charges — sodomy and kidnapping — he faces from 20 years to life in prison.
The oldest incident in the charges dates to 1999, his first year as a circuit judge. The first public claim against Thomas surfaced in lawsuits filed by an inmate in 2001 in Mobile circuit court and in federal court that claimed the judge offered to help him with his case in return for sex. Both lawsuits were dismissed, and Thomas' reputation remained unblemished.
Chief Assistant District Attorney Nicki Patterson said authorities began looking at Thomas after he changed a jail sentence in 2006 for his cousin, former Mobile County school commissioner David Thomas, even though the case was being handled by another judge. Other cases that Thomas had taken over from other judges without their approval soon surfaced, she said.
Some inmates in those cases described being checked out of the jail for meetings with Thomas in his car or in his private office in the county courthouse. First, there were reports of inmates having to pull down their underwear for spankings with a wooden paddle. Then came allegations of oral and anal sex, according to court records.
Retired Mobile County Circuit Judge Braxton Kittrell said people thought Thomas' personal interest in the defendants was a positive.
"Everyone thought he had a lot of concern for people who got into criminal difficulty. All of this was a surprise to everyone," he said.
Defense attorney Robert "Cowboy Bob" Clark calls the accusers "lying felons" who are trying to wreck the career of "a prestigious member of the Bar for over 20 years." The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, a leading civil rights group, has defended Thomas and claims race is behind his prosecution.
But Patterson disputes that, noting that each of the victims is black, and says that jail checkout records back up inmates' claims about trips to Thomas' private office, and other inmates spotted marks after paddlings. There also is other evidence, according to court records, including one inmate's seminal fluid on the office carpet. The inmates also were able to describe in detail Thomas' unmarked windowless office.
Prosecutors say they have 15 current and former male inmates lined up to testify in a trial that could take several weeks.
The 48-year-old attorney, whose license to practice has been suspended, maintains his innocence. He has said he was trying to mentor the inmates.
He and his attorney blame the charges on politicians who don't like him. "There is no doubt that people assisted these inmates in telling these lies on me," Thomas said in April.
His attorney called the indictment "a high-tech lynching" by some in power in Mobile. "They don't like uppity black folks, and that's what they consider Herman," Clark said.
Thomas grew up in Mobile and returned home after law school at Florida State University to become an assistant district attorney.
At the time, the majority white county had no black judges, and local officials were concerned that a federal judge might end countywide elections for judges. Local Democrats and lawyers recruited Thomas, and they got a Republican governor to appoint him to a vacancy in 1990. Thomas later won election to a full term.
He handled lower level cases as a district judge, but he moved up to a county circuit judgeship in 1999 and started handling the most serious crimes, including murder.
In 1997, Alabama's presidential advisory committee recommended President Bill Clinton appoint Thomas as the first black federal judge in the southern district of Alabama. The nomination was never acted on after Thomas failed to get the American Bar Association's top rating and amid some squabbling within the party.