ST. PETERSBURG — Todd Pierce is a former school resource officer who was convicted of lewd acts on a 15-year-old girl. He was branded a sex offender and sent to a North Florida prison for a 10-year sentence.
But now Pierce is out of prison and living in St. Petersburg, even though he's still a registered sex offender with prison time looming over him.
In a rare move, Pierce was released from prison after six months' incarceration while he pursues an appeal.
And his victim is frightened.
"Every day I wake up, I'm scared," said the woman, who is now 24 and was an Osceola High School student when she was abused. "I can't even go in my house by myself at night. … I shouldn't have to be scared like that."
She said in an interview that "the justice system has really, really failed me. For him to be released again is another crime."
Pinellas-Pasco Judge Timothy Peters, who presided over the trial and approved Pierce's $100,000 bond, said he could not discuss this case specifically. But he did point out the law allows defendants to request such bonds, and he is required to hear the case.
"Judges are charged to enforce the law," he said. "All of it."
And Peters said he is required to honestly weigh the evidence and determine if a defendant meets the legal criteria for such a bond — which he obviously did in this case.
But it's an unusual situation.
"I've never seen a convicted sex offender allowed to be released into the community on (this type of) bond," said Assistant State Attorney Holly Grissinger, a prosecutor since 2001.
It's especially disturbing to the victim, because she said Pierce is currently living with his in-laws in St. Petersburg, not far from her. She doesn't like the thought of him being that close after she thought he had been sent away.
"I'm the victim. I am the one who has had to deal with this for 9 1/2 years. I am the one who had to sit here and be afraid for my life." She is not being named because of the nature of the crime.
The state Department of Corrections said only 19 people have been released from Florida prisons on this kind of bond this year, including six sex offenders.
A similar case drew controversy in Hillsborough County earlier this year after a judge sentenced Richard Martin Chotiner to 15 years in prison for sex acts on a mentally disabled man but allowed him to remain free on $50,000 bond while his attorney prepared an appeal.
Pierce, 44, is a former Pinellas sheriff's deputy who once was a popular figure at Osceola and Dixie Hollins high schools, and before that a drill instructor at a boot camp for juvenile delinquents.
The victim had testified that at Osceola High, Pierce fondled her in areas of the school where he knew there were no surveillance cameras.
One day in September 2001, Pierce drove to her home, saying he needed to get a statement from her about an arson case, even though she was home sick. Once in her house, she said, he performed oral sex on her and they had intercourse.
Pierce said in an interview with the Times that he is keeping a low profile and spending most of his time reading, exercising and visiting with relatives. He's not working.
"I just spend my time with my family," said Pierce, whose wife is currently living in Dallas. "They support me. They've supported me since day one."
It's common for people who get arrested to post bail and get out of jail. But these people have not been found guilty. They're still awaiting trials, or plea agreements, and could be found guilty or innocent. By posting bail, they agree to come back for future court proceedings.
But Pierce's situation was different. A jury already found him guilty of two sex crimes: lewd or lascivious battery and lewd or lascivious molestation. He was sentenced in April to 10 years in prison. After that, he was incarcerated in the Pinellas County Jail, where he had once worked as a detention deputy. Eventually, he was sent to the Cross City Correctional Institution, a state prison.
In May, Pierce's public defender filed a motion for a bond that would allow him to be released from prison on appeal. He was not released until September .
During the May hearing, Assistant Public Defender Athena Thanos said Pierce met the criteria for such a bond. She said he had shown "overwhelming respect for the law," which is one of the requirements. He also had no prior record, always showed up for court dates and has strong family ties to the community, she said. Also, she said there were serious issues to merit an appeal.
During the trial, Peters allowed the testimony of another woman who accused Pierce of sexually abusing her when she was a minor, even though prosecutors didn't charge Pierce in connection with her allegations. This type of testimony is often contested and appealed.
Prosecutor Grissinger, however, said during the hearing that Pierce "has been grooming young girls and committing (lewd and lascivious) batteries." She said his history shows "no respect for the law … he used his badge as a shield in the schools."
Peters, the judge, said there's a reason people don't often get out of prison on the type of bonds Pierce posted. The only people who qualify are those who get sentenced to prison for felony crimes; don't have previous felony convictions; and are making nonfrivolous appeals.
Many people who get sent to prison have previous felonies. Many first-time felons don't get locked up, so they wouldn't qualify either. And not everyone appeals.
"There's going to be very few of these cases percentagewise," Peters said. Asked how many of these bond requests he had heard, Peters listed about a half-dozen in more than a decade handling criminal cases.
Pierce, meanwhile, maintains his innocence. Although he apologized to the woman at his sentencing, he said this week that he was apologizing "for what she and her family had been through."
It wasn't supposed to be a confession, he said. "I didn't apologize for doing anything."
This stance bothers the victim also.
"He didn't admit it," she said. "So how can you apologize when you're not admitting what you did?"
Curtis Krueger can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8232.