Public Protest for Judge Who Gave Light Sentence to Short Sex Offender

A petition drive is calling for the resignation of the judge who sentenced a sex offender to probation instead of prison in part because of his short stature.

The campaign is aimed at Cheyenne County District Judge Kristine Cecava, who last week sentenced Richard W. Thompson to 10 years intensive probation instead of prison on two felony child sexual assault charges. Cecava said at the sentencing hearing that she did not believe the 5-foot, 1-inch Thompson could survive in prison.

He could have been sentenced to 10 years behind bars.

A transcript of the sentencing hearing shows that Cecava considered a number of issues when determining Thompson's sentence, not only his height.

"So I'm sitting here thinking this guy has earned his way to prison but then I look at you and I look at your physical size," Cecava is quoted as saying in the transcript. "I look at your basic ability to cope with people and, quite frankly, I shake to think what might happen to you in prison because I don't think you'll do well in prison."

When outlining terms of his probation sentence, Cecava repeatedly warned Thompson that failure to comply would land him in prison. As part of the probation, Thompson will be electronically monitored for the first four months and was told never to be alone with someone under age 18 or date or live with a woman whose children were under 18.

Thompson was charged for having sexual contact last summer with a girl who is now 14.

"I truly hope that my bet on you being OK out in society isn't misplaced," Cecava said at the sentencing hearing. "It's very hard to keep you in society when I know the risk is another child getting hurt."

Lincoln attorney Bernie Glaser, who said he's been Cecava's friend and colleague for 33 years, said her ruling has been misunderstood. The prosecutor didn't ask for prison time, Glaser noted, and the judge took other factors into account when deciding that prison wasn't right for Thompson including his mental capabilities and information contained in a pre-sentence report that is not public.

"We need more judges like her," Glaser said. "I think they should be proud they have a judge like her."

The case has drawn international attention, with crime victim advocates decrying the sentence and supporters of short people saying it's about time someone recognized the challenges they face.

Attorney General Jon Bruning was preparing an appeal of the sentence, arguing that it is too lenient.

Tiffany Jones, 30, of Lodgepole, works in Sidney and is organizing demonstrations at the county courthouse and gathering signatures seeking Cecava's resignation. Jones said she's already gotten about 700 signatures as of Wednesday and she hoped to submit the signatures along with a complaint to the state commission that disciplines judges by the end of the week.

"We're doing what we can," said Jones, who is the mother of three children and also a child care provider.

Voters would have a chance in 2008 to remove Cecava. That is the next time she is up for a retention vote. One taken in 2002 resulted in 74 percent of voters saying she should remain on the bench.

Cecava, a North Platte native, received her law degree from the University of Nebraska College of Law in 1977. She previously worked as Keith County Attorney from 1980 to 1987, before being appointed as a county judge by then-Gov. Kay Orr in 1987. She has served as a district court judge since her appointment by then-Gov. Mike Johanns in 1999.

In the latest judge evaluation survey, filled out by attorneys in 2004, Cecava received above average marks in every category except in promptness of completing her work, which was just below satisfactory.

Of the attorneys who completed the survey, 74 percent said that she deserved to keep her position.