Maybe for an average person convicted of the kind of assault that Thomas J. Thompson committed, eight months at a halfway house would be sufficient.
But Thompson is not that average person; he is, unaccountably, an Erie County sheriff’s deputy who, as a guard at the Erie County Holding Center, orchestrated a group assault on an inmate.
Somehow, U.S. Magistrate Judge H. Kenneth Schroeder thought eight months in a halfway house would send a message to other guards about the need to perform their jobs honorably. Most do, but for those inclined to abuse inmates, Schroeder’s sentence of this rogue deputy is a message that it’s not all that serious. Do it or don’t, but if you get caught, you might have to go to the halfway house.
That penalty is not enough, and it is up to Sheriff Timothy B. Howard to act and fire Thompson. The county simply cannot afford to have on its payroll a jail guard who thinks he is within his rights to assault inmates at will.
That was what happened in this case: Thompson said he was looking for drugs in the jail and that Stephen Heilmann, an inmate, lied to guards about it. He and other deputies then went to Heilmann’s cell and told him that because he lied, he had to choose which deputy would punch him in the gut. The assault was carried out.
It was, as the judge said, “a violation of an oath. The meaning of that oath is being lost on people. That’s the seriousness of the crime here.”
He is absolutely correct, but a few months in a halfway house, a penalty that allows Thompson to keep his job as a jail guard, in no way reflects that seriousness. Prosecutors had sought a sentence of a year in prison, which would have cost Thompson his job.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Trini E. Ross said, “With great power comes great responsibility. Mr. Thompson had that power.”
The judge said he took into account Thompson’s economic and family circumstances, which defense lawyer James W. Grable Jr. played like a violin. “A loss of employment due to his absence from work would be disastrous,” he said. “This is something he will have to live with forever – that stain on his record.”
But that’s straight out of Lawyering 101. The answer to that dodge is that Thompson is asking the court – meaning the public that the court represents – to care more about his circumstances than he did. Why should that matter to the judge when Thompson treated the matter so casually, himself?
The sheriff previously fired Thompson over this issue, but a state judge ordered him to be reinstated at a lower rank. All of that happened before Thompson pleaded guilty to the crime, drawing his sojourn to the halfway house. Now Howard needs to act again not just to protect other inmates from this kind of outrageous behavior, but to protect the reputation of his jail and its other employees, as well as the county and its taxpayers from the costs that rogue deputies can easily run up.
There are reasons for rules and some of them allow for no deviation. This is one of them. Howard needs to get Thompson out of there.