TAMPA — Each day, Circuit Judge Chet Tharpe takes in the unabridged horrors of Hillsborough County's worst sex crime and child abuse cases.
He hears the fantasies of pedophiles, the nightmares of women and the screams of children raped in kiddie porn videos.
He often contains his outrage. But not always. Some things, he believes, shouldn't go unsaid.
• • •
On a routine morning last week, 35 defendants stood before him, some for quick case updates, others to learn their sentences.
Then came number 36.
A father had fondled his two girls, starting when each was 12. Now, they were young women.
The family's behavior troubled Tharpe. The victims and their mother had asked prosecutors to drop the charge. They didn't want to lose the father to prison.
Prosecutors offered a plea deal. At most, he would be sent away for five years. Now, Tharpe had to decide whether to order the maximum.
The entire family showed up to ask for probation, including the girls' younger brother, 13. The mother said the boy came to support his dad. Tharpe thought she should have known better than to expose her son to this scene.
The woman spoke:
"We have so much we're going to lose — a four-bedroom home, animals that I can't take with me. We've had over a year of not being together as a family, no holidays, no birthdays.
"I love my husband and I love my kids.
"I'm just stuck in the middle."
This man had molested their two girls for years, touching their breasts, going further with one, telling one to relax, according to a police report, after she told him to stop.
Tharpe wondered: Where was her sense of outrage?
• • •
The courtroom was silent as Tharpe cleared his throat.
"I am appalled," he told the mother, "that you don't take your children's interests first. … I can't believe that you didn't go to him and say 'How dare you? Who do you think you are? What kind of father are you?' "
Tharpe was left to do that, and so his eyes drilled into the man.
"You," he said, "should be ashamed of yourself."
"I am sorry," the father said.
"Then why don't you tell me about it?" the judge said, folding his arms. "Tell me what you want to say to keep you out of prison."
"Well, sir. I'm at a loss for words," the father said.
"Why would you do that to your daughters?" Tharpe asked. "You did it because you're twisted. You're sick."
"I don't disagree," the man said. "I'll go get counseling. I'm not a …"
"You're not a what?" Tharpe asked. "A pedophile? Oh, yeah you are. You're a pedophile. Yeah, you are. You're a sexual offender. … You've admitted to two lewd and lascivious molestations. Oh, yeah you are. You're going to be registered from now on. You're going to report from now on. Your face is going to be on the Internet. Oh, yeah, absolutely."
Tharpe told the father he deserved prison but sentenced him to 25 years of probation. The man, 43, will be 68 when it ends. He can't be alone with other people's kids. If he fails to follow the rules — including a curfew, treatment and polygraph tests — he could get locked up.
• • •
Tharpe asked the 18-year-old victim to stand up. He wanted to ask her something.
"Do you feel like any of this is your fault?" Tharpe asked. "Do you feel guilty because your dad is here in the courtroom?"
The teen tucked her thumbs into the back pockets of her jeans and nodded. A victim's advocate slid over a box of tissues.
"You know," Tharpe told her, "it's not your fault. You didn't cause this, and you don't need to feel guilty about it. Okay?"
He watched her return to her family.
"Good luck," he told her.
Alexandra Zayas can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (813) 226-3354.