Originally created 03/09/06

Coach quits, pleads guilty



A high school basketball coach who led his team to a state championship two years ago resigned this week, and on Wednesday he admitted inappropriate and illegal sexual contact with students.

Samuel Lilly, 41, pleaded guilty in Richmond County Superior Court to sexual assault against a person in an education institution and two counts simple battery. Mr. Lilly resigned from his job at T.W. Josey High School on Tuesday as part of a plea negotiation that allowed him to serve his sentence on probation instead of in prison.

Judge Duncan D. Wheale challenged District Attorney Danny Craig on the plea recommendation. The judge complained that he sees no consistency in punishments given to sex offenders.

Judge Wheale said he has been criticized for being too lenient for sentencing one young man to a year in prison, and then he's asked to give probation in a similar case.

In the end, Judge Wheale accepted the recommendation for probation under the First Offender Act. Mr. Lilly will serve five years on probation, during which time he must perform 300 hours of community service and donate $10,000 to Child Enrichment, an agency that works on behalf of abused children.

Mr. Craig admitted that the case against Mr. Lilly wasn't as strong as he would like and that the victims were reluctant to testify. One student told investigators that Mr. Lilly made sexually suggestive comments and touched her breast.

Two others complained that he touched their hair and shoulders, but while making suggestive comments, Mr. Craig said.

The prosecution's case was strengthened, however, by two women who came forward to tell investigators that Mr. Lilly had instigated sexual contact with them a decade ago when he taught at Curtis Baptist School.

The statute of limitations has expired for those complaints.

However, investigators were able to tape-record recent conversations between the women and Mr. Lilly, specifically when he apologized for what he did, Mr. Craig said.

Defense attorney Victor Hawk said a number of witnesses could counter the alleged victims' statements. It is also possible that the phone-conversation tapes couldn't be admitted as evidence, he said.

"It's a very difficult, close call," Mr. Hawk said.

Both sides faced substantial risks, he said.

"I followed you when you were a football player. A lot of people did. We held you in high esteem," Judge Wheale said to Mr. Lilly.

In addition to leading the Josey girls basketball team to the state championship in 2003 and being honored as The Augusta Chronicle's All-Area Georgia Coach of the Year in 2005, Mr. Lilly played in the National Football League from 1987 to 1993 with the New York Giants, Philadelphia Eagles and Los Angeles Rams.

"I hope you understand the harm you have caused," Judge Wheale said to him.

Reach Sandy Hodson at (706) 823-3226 or sandy.hodson@augustachronicle.com.

SEX OFFENDER



Sam Lilly, former professional football player and exalted high school coach, will have to register as a sex offender because of his guilty plea Wednesday. If he successfully completes five years probation, however, his name will be removed from the registry.