Melissa L. Chase, 29, stood trembling before the judge, dressed in a jail uniform of bright orange cotton smock and pants, her hands and feet chained.
She blamed no one but herself, apologizing profusely to her victim, family, friends, supporters and former peers - those hurt because of her selfishness, she said. As her supporters in Richmond County Superior Court cried, Ms. Chase apologized for the embarrassment she had caused. She spoke of her shame in seeing her parents in tears begging a judge for mercy. She asked for none for herself.
In a Richmond County bench trial in June, Superior Court Judge Carl C. Brown Jr. found Ms. Chase guilty of sexual assault against a student enrolled in school. She had a single sexual encounter last year with a 16-year-old girl. The teenager had been one of her students the previous year.
What she did was wrong, her supporters said in court Friday, but it shouldn't cancel out all of the good she has done.
Her minister spoke of her remorse; a former colleague spoke of how much Ms. Chase had given and how she has lost a profession she loved; and the mother of a former student told of how much Ms. Chase had done for students to help them bring out the best in themselves.
"Ms. Chase is an absolute outstanding individual," said her attorney Greg Leopard.
Assistant District Attorney Adam King said it wasn't a matter of trying to say Ms. Chase was a bad person, but she committed a crime, regardless of what one might think of the law.
"Our hands are tied by the law," he said.
Judge Brown agreed. He said state legislators have taken a strong stand against sexual offenses, especially those involving children and those committed against people in a position ripe for coercion, such as schools.
He sentenced Ms. Chase to 10 years in prison - the mandatory minimum sentence - followed by five years of probation.
Reach Sandy Hodson at (706) 823-3226 or firstname.lastname@example.org.