TAMPA — For 14 years, criminal cases involving accused rapists, molesters and child abusers in Hillsborough County have been heard by a single judge in the sex offender division.
Advocates of this highly specialized court for pedophiles and predators call it a smart, efficient way to handle difficult cases with unique sensitivities. But critics say no judge can hear the horrifying details of rape and abuse day after day without becoming biased — particularly when children are victims.
And they point to Circuit Judge Chet Tharpe — known for his dramatic pronouncements, his sometimes lengthy sentences and his recent rebuke from an appeals court — as proof.
Now Hillsborough's sex offender court is no more.
This week, Circuit Judge Manuel Menendez Jr. dissolved the division in one of his last acts as chief judge before he retires. Menendez informed the judges that as of Jan. 1, sex and child abuse cases will be randomly distributed among criminal court judges who hear felony cases ranging from grand theft to murder.
The move, he said, had been "contemplated for a while."
"I thought we needed resources elsewhere, and this is a way of doing that," Menendez said, pointing out that no special division exists for murders, which are also complex and important cases.
Tharpe, on the bench for 24 years and in sex offender court for eight, could not be reached for comment Wednesday.
So-called "boutique" courts allow specially assigned lawyers and judges to get steeped in the nuances of a specific area of law. Hillsborough has drug court, probation court, veterans court and animal court, among others. None has drawn the attention of sex offender court under Tharpe — particularly after the case of accused child pornographer Peter Barnhill.
Caught with thousands of graphic images on his hard drive, Barnhill had no record and passed a lie detector test indicating he had never touched a child. A psychologist called him low-risk.
At the sentencing, an emotional Judge Tharpe called child pornography "epidemic" and indicated Barnhill had a 50-50 chance of molesting a child. Tharpe gave him 22 years.
In a strongly worded opinion, the 2nd District Court of Appeal ordered a new sentencing by a different judge. The appeals court noted that Tharpe spoke of his struggle with such cases "every single day of my life since I've been put into this division" and said the judge equated Barnhill with those similarly charged rather than considering his individual case. Clearly, Barnhill did not get "a hearing in a dispassionate environment before a fair and impartial judge."
Other Tharpe sentences have gotten attention, including four life terms for the rapist of a 75-year-old woman and 690 years for a man who beat and molested boys.
Citing the Barnhill rebuke, Hillsborough Public Defender Julie Holt sent a letter to the chief judge in August saying sex offender court was no longer necessary or efficient, particularly since DNA and other scientific evidence are now commonplace in cases from petty theft to murder.
The specialized division "can also lead to the development of personal biases, perceptions and beliefs on the part of the court as well as the lawyers" assigned there, Holt wrote. The Hillsborough County Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers also wrote of concerns about "predictable 'rubber-stamped' sentences."
"We feel that one person can only listen to so many sexual cases before it can take a toll on the person's objectivity," the letter said. "We fear, with great respect, that this may now be the case." Other lawyers spoke of the possibility of using the Barnhill decision to get Tharpe recused from their own similar cases.
Tharpe is assigned to a criminal division and will continue to hear cases involving convicted sex offenders who may be held under civil commitment under the Jimmy Ryce Act.
A spokesman for Hillsborough State Attorney Mark Ober said the sex offender division, like other specialty courts, served Hillsborough County well. "We were hopeful it would not be disbanded," Mark Cox said.
Tampa defense lawyer Lyann Goudie said she believed this was a good decision for the court system overall.
"It's got to be difficult to handle those kinds of crimes, especially crimes that involve children," she said. "If that's all they were seeing day in and day out, it would be the very rare person that would be able to maintain objectivity and neutrality."
Sue Carlton can be reached at (813) 226-3376 or [email protected]