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Hillsborough judge allows sex offender to go free during appeals process

Richard M. Chotiner’s appeal may take months or years.

Richard M. Chotiner’s appeal may take months or years.

TAMPA — Linda Petruzzi thought her nightmare was over when Senior Judge J. Rogers Padgett sentenced the man who molested her mentally disabled son to 15 years in prison.

But a day later, Richard Martin Chotiner walked out of jail.

The judge allowed the convicted sex offender to remain free on $50,000 bail while an appeals court considers his case, a process that typically takes months or years.

Chotiner, who was ordered to wear an electronic monitoring device for a time before his conviction, doesn't have to wear anything to track his movements now.

The retired Hillsborough County judge's ruling is within his discretion. But prosecutors vehemently opposed it, and Petruzzi is left feeling like her son has fewer rights than a man convicted in January of two counts of lewd or lascivious battery on an elderly or disabled person.

"This doesn't seem just for us," she said. "This doesn't seem just at all."

Even Chotiner's trial attorney acknowledges that it certainly isn't common.

"You don't see this very often," said defense attorney Will Knight.

Petruzzi's son and Chotiner, 48, met at Tampa's Adventure Island water park in April 2007. Her son, whom the Times is not naming because of the nature of the offense, was 23 but functioned at the mental level of a 10-year-old boy.

In addition to his mental disabilities, the younger man also suffers from a neurological disorder that causes benign tumors to grow on his skin. Chotiner, a nurse, said he had a cream that would cure it.

The next day, after meeting again at the water park, Petruzzi's son went to Chotiner's house. There, the older man performed sexual acts on the younger man, authorities said. DNA tests found Chotiner's saliva on the victim.

A jury took less than 40 minutes to find Chotiner guilty, Petruzzi said.

In court Thursday, Assistant State Attorney Kimberly Hindman argued that Chotiner should get the full 30 years in prison he faced.

Petruzzi, shaking so hard she thought she might pass out, told the judge she forgave Chotiner but still wanted him punished for "violating one of God's special babies."

Padgett ordered a 15-year prison term. Then he granted Chotiner bail pending his appeal.

Hindman was just as stunned as Petruzzi.

"The facts of this case are extremely, extremely egregious," the prosecutor said.

People convicted of certain offenses — first-degree felonies such as drug trafficking, arson, sexual battery, murder and kidnapping — have no chance for a post-conviction bond.

But for those accused of lesser crimes, the standard for appellate bail is not that hard to meet, according to attorney David Weisbrod, who is handling Chotiner's appeal.

Chotiner was convicted of second-degree felonies. He has prior arrests but no felony convictions, and his lawyers convinced Padgett that he was not a flight risk or a danger to the community.

The judge also had to find that the basis for Chotiner's request for a new trial was not frivolous and was made in good faith. Chotiner's attorneys argue that the sex acts were consensual, and they contend that the victim does not meet the legal definition of a mentally disabled person.

Reached at home on Monday, the judge said simply that Chotiner was entitled to bail.

"We really don't have much choice in that," Padgett said.

Petruzzi's reaction to the decision has gone from shock to anger. The Valrico woman said she and her son have been crying for days.

They worry that Chotiner will strike again.

Colleen Jenkins can be reached at cjenkins@sptimes.com or (813) 226-3337.

Hillsborough judge allows sex offender to go free during appeals process 03/09/09 [Last modified: Tuesday, March 10, 2009 7:36am]
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