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Carlton: Even in sex court, judges need to be dispassionate

When it comes to Hillsborough County's specialized court for sex crimes, has the judge there done his time? Even gone over the line?

For the record, specialty courts make a lot of sense. Set up to deal with specific crimes, they're an efficient way to handle probation violations for which defendants offer up bad excuses or plausible explanations, to give first-time drug offenders a second chance, even to deal with dog bites in animal court. Judges and lawyers get well versed on all the particulars.

Sex offender court — which deals with accused pedophiles, rapists, molesters, child abusers, even baby killers — is not for the faint of heart. I've heard, and also understood, when a prospective juror said she could handle a homicide but not a sex crime involving a child.

Circuit Judge Chet Tharpe has presided here for about a quarter of his 24 years on the bench. His sentences make headlines.

He gave four life terms to a previously convicted rapist who later attacked a 75-year--old widow. He handed down 690 years to a man who beat, molested and videotaped boys. When the defendant asked for treatment, he said, "I have an intervention for you — it's called Florida State Prison."

A teacher who pleaded guilty to photographing children and possessing child pornography got more than 1,500 years. This line has been used before, but no, that is not a typo.

No one weeps much for such defendants. A judge tells a bad person who has committed horrible acts that he would put him under the jail if he could, and we nod.

But even here, judges are supposed to be dispassionate. And as the Times' Anna M. Phillips recently reported, an appeals court says Tharpe crossed the line.

The case considered by the 2nd District Court of Appeal involved a defendant who had amassed thousands of images of child pornography. He had no criminal record, a psychologist deemed him low risk and a lie detector supported the contention that he hadn't touched a child. The judge still gave him 22 years.

The appeals court cited Tharpe's emotional speech at the sentencing. He spoke of his struggle with these cases "every single day of my life since I've been put into this division." He said child pornographers have a 50-50 chance of becoming "hands-on" offenders, lumping this defendant in with anyone similarly charged instead of considering the man's individual circumstances, the appeals court said. Anyone could see that this defendant did not get a "dispassionate" hearing "before a fair and impartial judge," the court ruled. Another judge will resentence him.

This rebuke makes a pretty good case for the regular rotation of judges between court assignments the way it's done in other circuits — a system especially useful given what they deal with daily in sex court. Because that appeals court ruling paves the way for other attorneys to try to argue Tharpe off their own child porn cases, now seems a particularly opportune time for a new face.

Maybe it's difficult to see shades of gray in a place where brutal facts are daily fodder, to not want to bury them all under the jail.

But that's why a judge gets the robe and the parking space and the immense amount of power — to make not just triple-digit sentences but also tough choices no matter who stands before them. It's the hard part of what we elect them for.

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