Of the 84 people given first offender status for sex crimes in the past 11 years in Richmond County, one-third committed new crimes before their probation expired, an Augusta Chronicle database shows. Some of those new offenses were sex crimes: rape, public indecency and child molestation.
Georgia law doesn’t allow first offender status for some sex crimes, including sodomy, incest and child molestation, but records show defendants are allowed to plead to lesser offenses that do qualify for it, such as misdemeanor sexual battery.
First offender status allows a person to walk away without the stain of a felony conviction if he or she completes probation or a prison sentence without any violations.
District Attorney Ashley Wright said that generally plea bargains are allowed for lesser sex crimes when the evidence isn’t strong or the witnesses are small children who prosecutors are reluctant to place on the witness stand.
Louis Hameed, for instance, was charged with aggravated child molestation because a 13-year-old girl gave him oral sex when he was 17. Because they were close in age, Hameed was allowed to plead to a lesser charge. He successfully completed probation and is not a registered sex offender.
In another case, William Mark Richardson was charged with aggravated sexual battery but pleaded guilty to misdemeanor false imprisonment. He was one of four defendants accused of inserting a toilet plunger handle into the rectum of a fellow inmate at Augusta’s Youth Detention Center. The victim later gave conflicting statements as to whether penetration occurred, so the prosecutor settled on an agreement with the defense.
“They exercised good judgment, and I’m OK with it,” Wright said of her staff.
However, some cases come back to haunt prosecutors and open questions about why they were granted first offender status.
Gerald Wayne Smith was arrested in 2003 on charges of assaulting three women. An indictment accused him of choking a woman and ordering her to take her clothes off; forcing another woman to give him oral sex; and abducting a third woman who was threatened with murder and forced to perform oral sex.
Smith pleaded guilty midway through his trial to two lesser offenses of false imprisonment. He had a prior arrest as a peeping Tom, but that charge was dropped, so he qualified for first offender status. He was given 10 years of probation.
Five years later, in 2008, Smith and Tommy Middleton were accused of raping a woman. Smith pleaded guilty to rape and received a six-year sentence, with four years of probation. Middleton received one year in prison and seven years of probation for his Alford plea, which acknowledges a guilty verdict is likely and is treated as a guilty plea by the courts.
Forty-five percent of the 84 first offenders listed in the Chronicle database received more than one probation revocation during their sentence. This could be the result of committing a new crime, not complying with court-ordered counseling, not notifying a probation officer of a new address or not paying fines.
The rest succesfully completed probation, and most are not on the sex offender registry.
One such case is that of Eldrige Bronson, who was indicted on a statutory rape charge at age 18 in 2004 for having sex with a female younger than 16. A year later, he pleaded guilty and received 10 years of probation as a first offender. That probation was terminated early in 2007, and he is not on the registry.