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A guard at the Erie County Holding Center may be able to keep his job despite a federal conviction for assaulting an inmate at the downtown jail.

Thomas J. Thompson, 40, of Grand Island, was spared prison time Wednesday and instead ordered to serve eight months at a federal halfway house in Buffalo.

The sentence would allow Thompson, an Erie County sheriff’s deputy who admitted taking part in the assault, to continue working at the jail while serving his sentence.

Federal prosecutors sought a year in prison for Thompson, a sentence that would have cost him his job. They declined to comment except to suggest that Thompson’s fate now lies with Sheriff Timothy B. Howard.

“It’s ultimately the employer’s decision,” said U.S. Attorney William J. Hochul Jr.

Howard could not be reached to comment Wednesday but it was the sheriff who initially fired Thompson, only to rehire him after an arbitrator ordered him back to work.

In sentencing Thompson, U.S. Magistrate Judge H. Kenneth Schroeder said he wanted to send a message to guards at the Holding Center – violate your oath and you suffer the consequences.

“The crime and the seriousness of the crime is the violation of an oath,” Schroeder said. “The meaning of that oath is being lost on people. That’s the seriousness of the crime here.”

The judge said he also took into account Thompson’s economic and family circumstances, and the possibility he might lose his job, in sentencing him to a halfway house.

“A loss of employment due to his absence from work would be disastrous,” said James W. Grable Jr., Thompson’s defense lawyer. “This is something he will have to live with forever – that stain on his record.”

As part of his guilty plea in June, Thompson admitted recruiting other deputies on Jan. 18, 2010 to assist him in punishing an inmate, Stephen Heilmann. He claims Heilmann lied to guards about drugs at the downtown jail.

When a search of another inmate’s cell failed to turn up any drugs, Thompson and the other deputies returned to Heilmann’s cell and told him that because he lied, he had to take a punch to the gut.

Thompson then told Heilmann to pick out a deputy to deliver the jab. He did so, and a deputy then punched him.

“Any police officer in this country that does something like this absolutely deserves the maximum penalty allowed by law,” Heilmann said in a telephone statement to the judge. “He needs to be sentenced and he needs to be sentenced hard to send a message to the other guards.”

Heilmann interrupted the proceedings at least three times and, on one occasion, expressed outrage at the fact that Thompson was convicted of a misdemeanor, not a felony, charge.

“This an abomination,” he said before hanging up the phone.

Thompson, who pleaded guilty to deprivation of rights under color of law, said very little during his sentencing, except to express regret at what he had done.

“I have no one to blame but myself,” he told the judge.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Trini E. Ross argued for a year-long prison sentence and suggested that Thompson’s actions as a police officer needed to be condemned by the court.

“With great power comes great responsibility,” Ross said. “Mr. Thompson had that power.”

Thompson’s sentence follows an out-of-court settlement of a lawsuit filed by Heilmann.

The terms of the settlement were not disclosed by the court, but the county said its portion of the settlement was $14,990.

The suit led to the suspension of three deputies and the firing of Thompson and two other deputies, but they were later rehired as part on an arbitrator’s ruling. Thompson, a sergeant on the force, also was demoted to deputy.

email: pfairbanks@buffnews.com