TAMPA — Prosecutors wanted former teacher Christina Butler to go to prison for repeatedly having sex with a special education student.
But when Hillsborough Circuit Judge J. Rogers Padgett looked around his courtroom during Butler's sentencing, he saw no outrage. No angry parents. No damaged boy.
It made him wonder if the victim felt like a victim.
"When you do not have a victim, then what are you left with?" Padgett told the St. Petersburg Times on Thursday. "When you don't have retribution, you don't have much of anything."
Butler, 34, faced up to 30 years in prison. Swayed by three hours of testimony about the ex-Middleton High School teacher's long history of mental disorders, the judge sentenced her Wednesday to five years of sex offender probation.
He said from the bench that the victim, then 16 and borderline mentally retarded, according to prosecutors, was probably the more mature and less vulnerable of the two.
That suggestion horrified an attorney who said he plans to sue the Hillsborough County School District and possibly Butler on behalf of the teenage victim. Butler admitted having sex with the student up to a dozen times during a three-week period in fall 2007.
"I want to see her get on the stand and say that she was more vulnerable than this child," said attorney Darryl Rouson. "I can't see a civil jury, using its common sense, coming to the same conclusion as Judge Padgett."
Rouson said he didn't know why neither the teenager nor his parents showed up for Butler's hearing. Court records show that the victim's mother accepted a subpoena served to her son more than a month ago.
The Hillsborough State Attorney's Office is appealing Butler's sentence and would not comment Thursday.
The victim's voice certainly could have influenced Padgett's decision.
Last year, the judge heeded the call from another set of parents who wanted prison time for the teacher who had sex with their teenage daughter. Jaymee Wallace, a former Wharton High teacher and coach with far less documented evidence of mental illness than Butler, received three years in prison and three years of sex offender probation.
In Butler's case, Padgett said he became convinced that the teenager was more experienced in seduction than the teacher and heard no testimony that suggested otherwise.
Even though the teen was in a special education class, one psychologist who testified for the defense said he wasn't mentally retarded. The state provided no experts to contradict that claim.
Defense attorneys said the teen asked for Butler's phone number and to go to her home. In court records, he said the sex was consensual. He wore a condom that he brought with him.
"He exercised authority over her," Padgett said.
Rouson questioned why Butler, portrayed by her attorneys as overwhelmed and not adequately trained to teach a high school special education class, was hired in the first place.
Special education teachers are in short supply nationwide. Hillsborough schools spokeswoman Linda Cobbe said Butler had temporary certification to teach exceptional student education, a situation that is not uncommon as someone takes coursework to become fully certified.
Cobbe said the district wasn't aware of Butler's mental health issues.
"We don't do psychological screenings," she said. "We do criminal background checks."
School districts are taking a chance whenever they put someone in charge of a challenging group of students without enough support and training, regardless of the teacher's own mental health situation, said Sara Bicard, assistant professor of special education at the University of Memphis.
"This temporary certification process where we just stick a warm body in the classroom while they do their coursework may set teachers up for failure," she said.
Butler's sentence sparked quite a debate among people who posted comments about it on the Times' Web site, tampabay.com.
Padgett, who faces mandatory retirement at year's end but plans to serve as a senior judge, said he didn't pay much attention to the flurry of opinions.
"You've got to do what's right," he said. "I like to think I've never imposed a sentence upon a person because of what the public might think."
Times researcher John Martin contributed to this report. Colleen Jenkins can be reached at email@example.com or (813) 226-3337.