One day in September 2012, lawyer Michael Maddux walked out of a Hillsborough courtroom in shock. He couldn't believe what had just happened to his client, a middle-aged man with no criminal record who, prosecutors said, obsessively downloaded and categorized more child pornography than anyone else they had ever come across.
Peter Barnhill, 44, had more than 400,000 ghastly images on his hard drive. But there was no evidence he had ever touched a child, and he had passed a polygraph exam attesting to that. A psychologist who specializes in examining sex offenders pronounced him "low risk." Maddux thought his client might get, at most, five years in prison. Hillsborough Circuit Court Judge Chet A. Tharpe gave him 22.
"This child pornography phenomenon, if you will, is becoming an epidemic," Tharpe said in an emotional speech from the bench. There was a 50-50 chance that Barnhill would molest a child one day, he said, citing a study from 2011. "That is scary," he said. "We're not talking about a fantasy."
Months later, in a sharply worded decision that could affect whether Tharpe continues to hear child pornography cases, Florida's 2nd District Court of Appeal ruled that Barnhill would have to be resentenced, and by a different judge. The court faulted Tharpe for "abusing his discretion" by lumping Barnhill in with child molesters and rapists. The veteran jurist had implied that he would never consider giving a lighter sentence in a child pornography case, regardless of the facts.
"Even to the most casual observer, it could not be believed that Barnhill received a hearing in a dispassionate environment before a fair and impartial judge," the court wrote.
The decision was "en banc" or "entire bench," a rare unanimous ruling from all 13 appellate judges.
News of the Barnhill decision rippled through the courthouse, attracting the attention of lawyers who wondered if they could use it to disqualify Tharpe from their child pornography cases. Tampa defense attorney Frank de la Grana, who is among the first to use the decision in an appeal, said the ruling came only days before he was scheduled to argue a similar case before the appellate court.
De la Grana's client is Jay Goldstein, a former assistant swimming coach at Berkeley Preparatory School in Tampa. Tharpe sentenced him last year to 20 years in prison for possessing child pornography.
"It was like Christmas in the middle of the summer," de la Grana said. "All the heavy lifting was done."
He is awaiting a decision but expects that the appellate court will have Goldstein resentenced by a different judge.
More lawyers, including assistant public defenders, are expected to file motions asking Tharpe to recuse himself from their cases. Hillsborough Public Defender Julianne Holt would not comment on the appellate court's decision, but her office is examining 14 open child pornography casesassigned to Tharpe that could be affected by the Barnhill ruling.
Anticipating those appeals, Maddux sent Chief Judge Manuel Menendez Jr. a letter in August suggesting it was time to dissolve the sex offender division and reassign Tharpe. It would be a "win/win," he wrote diplomatically. The court could avoid a slew of disqualification motions, and no judges would become "heavy-handed due to burnout."
Menendez, who is retiring at the end of this year, did not respond, Maddux said. Neither he nor Tharpe responded to requests for comment. Other circuits rotate judges among divisions, a move that incoming Chief Judge Ronald Ficarrotta said he is considering.
In addition to the public admonition Tharpe received in the Barnhill decision, the judge has become entangled in a separate case in which a lawyer is attempting to depose him. The lawyer in that case says Tharpe improperly revoked his client's bail, overriding the bail set by another judge, in violation of the Florida Rules of Criminal Procedure.
Elected to the bench in 1990, Tharpe is Hillsborough County's only sex offender judge. His docket is a mix of accused rapists, child abusers and pedophiles sitting shoulder to shoulder in hushed misery. From his perch in Courtroom 15, he has cultivated a reputation for harsh sentences, but he seems to have a particularly deep well of disgust for people accused of making or possessing child pornography.
In 2013, he sentenced Roy W. Thomas, a Hillsborough County physics teacher who pleaded guilty to possessing child porn, as well as taking the pictures himself, to more than 1,500 years in prison. Thomas, 66, has the fifth-longest prison sentence in Florida among inmates not sentenced to life. His release date is July 30, 3522.
In another case that made headlines, Tharpe sentenced Christopher Renshaw, who pleaded guilty to molesting, beating and filming young boys. Dr. Peter Burston, the same psychologist who testified at Barnhill's sentencing, said Renshaw was mentally disabled. Tharpe gave him the maximum on each count: 690 years in prison. The victims applauded.
Maddux recalled a more recent case of his, in which Tharpe rejected a plea deal in favor of a significantly longer prison sentence.
"The people in the audience were speechless," he said. "I think there's a lot of speechless people coming out of there."
Researcher John Martin contributed to this report. Contact Anna M. Phillips at email@example.com or (813) 226-3354. Follow @annamphillips.