HOUSTON – Adrian Peterson won't be coming back to the field any time soon.
A Texas judge on Wednesday tentatively set a Dec. 1 trial date for the Minnesota Vikings star running back on a charge of felony child abuse for using a wooden switch to discipline his 4-year-old son earlier this year. Peterson is on paid leave and the Vikings' final game of the regular season is Dec. 28.
There's no guarantee the trial will begin Dec. 1, either. Montgomery County District Attorney Brett Ligon indicated he intends to file a motion to recuse Judge Kelly Case after the judge allegedly called attorneys in the case "media whores." Case apologized, but a Nov. 4 hearing was scheduled on whether to assign a new judge.
Defense attorney Rusty Hardin said he didn't mind Case comment because he's "been called worse." But he said he wants to try the case as quickly as possible since Peterson can't play in the NFL while the charge is pending.
"The only way to get this solved is to have a quick and speedy trial," Hardin said afterward.
Accompanied by his wife and with his mother sitting behind him in the gallery, Peterson did not speak during his initial court appearance and did not enter a plea. Hardin has indicated Peterson will plead not guilty to the charge that carries a penalty of up to two years in prison.
Peterson arrived in a black Cadillac Escalade at the suburban Houston courthouse. Nearby was a person wearing a wildcat costume and holding a sign that said "Free AP" in sparkling letters, prompting a chuckle from Hardin. Several women stood near the courthouse entrance shrieking and talking about how handsome Peterson looked after he entered the building.
Peterson, who was put on leave under a special roster exemption from the NFL commissioner, was indicted last month. He has said he never intended to harm his son and was only disciplining him in the same way he had been as a child growing up in East Texas.
Corporal punishment is legal in every U.S. state. Should Peterson's case go to trial, legal experts say, the final determination of what is reasonable discipline will be based on the standards found in the local community -- and Texas law offers no definition of what that is. It says the use of non-deadly force against someone younger than 18 is justified if a parent or guardian "reasonably believes the force is necessary to discipline the child or to safeguard or promote his welfare."
The Texas Attorney General's Office notes that belts and brushes "are accepted by many as legitimate disciplinary tools, but "electrical or phone cords, boards, yardsticks, ropes, shoes, and wires are likely to be considered instruments of abuse."
F. Scott McCown, director of the Children's Rights Clinic at the University of Texas School of Law that represents children in abuse and neglect cases, said people can have abstract debates about what is reasonable but they tend to come to a consensus when looking at a specific case.
Some of the factors that tend to be used to decide whether corporal punishment was unreasonable include whether a child needed medical attention and if the disciplining left visible marks and bruises, McCown said. According to court records, Peterson's son suffered cuts, marks and bruising to his thighs, back and on one of his testicles.
If Peterson's case goes to trial, prosecutors and defense attorneys will be picking jurors in a county with conservative beliefs and one that has also banned corporal punishment in its largest school district. E. Tay Bond, an attorney who has worked in Montgomery County for 16 years, said the potential jury pool in the Peterson case will likely not be economically or racially diverse.
Because jurors in are summoned via email, the jury pool will be made up of individuals with a higher socio-economic status, who tend to be more conservative, Bond said.
"People will still discipline their children ... As long as it's appropriate and not excessive, it's not a crime," Wilke said.
It's unclear how many cases involving abuse claims stemming from corporal punishment are dealt with either by Texas courts or CPS. The Texas Department of Family and Protective Services, CPS's parent agency, doesn't keep statistics detailing whether an abuse case involved corporal punishment. McCown said that in most of the cases his clinic has handled, usually parents do not end up going to jail.
Lucy Wilke, a prosecutor in Kerr County for 17 1/2 years, recalled a case in 2010 in which an 11-year-old boy was hit nearly 20 times with a three-foot piece of looped wire by his father for not taking out the trash.
"This was just excessive. This was abuse and not corporal punishment," said Wilke, who helped convict the Kerrville, Texas, man on a charge of injury to a child.
David Dill was sentenced to four years in prison after prosecutors accused him of binding his son's hands, feet and mouth with duct tape and then using the looped wire to hit the boy.
The range of punishment for injury to a child charge depends on the defendant's intent. Peterson is accused of injuring his son through his reckless actions, while Dill was accused of intentionally or knowingly causing injury to his child. He faced up to 10 years in prison.
In court documents, Dill denied doing anything wrong. Like Peterson, Dill said he disciplined his son similar to how he had been punished as a child.