June 10, 2006 was the last time former Circuit Judge Herman Thomas was able to simply have a prisoner checked out of the Mobile County Metro Jail, according to Sheriff Sam Cochran. It was just a few days before Cochran took over as sheriff and he says one of the first things he did was put an end to what seemed to be a pretty loose system at the jail that made it difficult, if not impossible, for jailers to keep track of exactly how jail releases were being executed.
This system is what may have made it easier for Thomas to have prisoners released to him for visits and trips, as has been alleged since the judge resigned his position in 2007 amid an investigation by the Alabama Judicial Inquiry Commission into charges he had paddled inmates. Since that time, others have come forward to claim Thomas used his position to coerce sexual activities from them, threatening them with imprisonment if they did not comply. And as was revealed in our last issue, local attorney Joe Kulakowski has interviewed men who claim to have sold drugs for Thomas.
Currently Thomas has neither been charged with nor indicted for any crime, and he continues practicing law in Mobile.
But in working on this story, one question keeps coming up — how was Thomas able to transfer 356 cases from other judges’ dockets, and to have so many prisoners released from the jail without anyone noticing? And perhaps more importantly, has anything been done to change the system so it can’t happen again?
Cochran says the situation at the jail has most certainly changed in regards to how judges are able to have prisoners released. He said there had traditionally been a system in place where the judges could pretty much have a prisoner released for just about any reason and the warden and guards would comply.
“Judges historically had unlimited authority. If a judge said it, by God, that’s law,” Cochran explained.
When he took over as sheriff, Cochran said Warden Mike Haley informed him of some of the things Thomas had been doing, in terms of requesting the release of prisoners for extracurricular events, travel or visits with the judge.
“Warden Haley brought to my attention some of the things Herman was doing and I said I wouldn’t support it,” Cochran said. “We put into place some new rules. Just because a judge says do it doesn’t mean you have to do it.”
Cochran said orders to release a prisoner typically come over via fax machine from the Circuit Clerk’s Office, and he said there are literally thousands of faxes sent per year. The volume of orders coupled with a historic lack of questioning of judges’ authority are what led people not to ask questions, Cochran says.
He also points out that the jail was understaffed by as many as 40-50 people in the early 2000s, which also led to problems in trying to keep up with judges’ orders, even those that may have been out of the ordinary.
“The thing with Thomas was he was one of the most active judges, but he would abuse the privileges,” Cochran said.
Cochran said the system was a mess even without the possibilities of what Thomas is alleged to have done. For example, in one case a clerk even signed a judge’s name on a document releasing a prisoner from jail, despite the fact the judge did not want the prisoner released. Cochran said that was caught before the prisoner was set free.
Since becoming sheriff, Cochran says he has worked to make sure prisoners are only released for legitimate reasons, and he has also tried to clamp down on things like taking prisoners to funerals or doctors appointments that could otherwise be taken care of in the jail. He feels those types of situations put both his officers and the general public in danger.
“I’ve gotten really good cooperation from the judges since [the new rules]. We might have upset one or two, but most of them understand,” Cochran said.
Jack Tillman, who was sheriff from 1995-2006, a time when Thomas was getting prisoners out of the jail, said he simply was never made aware it was going on. Tillman said no one would have questioned Thomas’ authority to get a prisoner out of jail and it wouldn’t have been cause for anyone to bring it to the sheriff’s attention.
“I had no idea he was getting people out of jail. But who’s going to tell a circuit judge he can’t get someone out of jail? He transferred over 400 cases from the dockets of other judges and they didn’t know he’d done that. How was I going to know he got people out of jail? I would have no clue. He could just go over there … any of them could just go over there and request that someone be released to them and I’m sure the jail would do it,” Tillman said.
Tillman said he doubted the wardens were even aware of what Thomas was doing.
“They couldn’t be there 24 hours a day,” he said. “If he went over there at 7 o’clock at night and got somebody, I probably wouldn’t know it, and even if I did what would I tell a circuit judge?”
Cochran says when looked at through the prism of the current allegations against Thomas, it’s hard to believe he was able to have so many cases transferred from other judges’ dockets and prisoners released without causing alarm.
“Now it all looks really odd in 20/20 hindsight,” Cochran said. “It’s unbelievable to think red flags didn’t go up.”
Lagniappe attempted multiple times to speak with presiding Circuit Judge Charles Graddick and Circuit Clerk JoJo Schwarzaur about their offices’ procedures and how Thomas was able to transfer so many cases without detection, but neither returned messages left at their offices prior to deadline.
Rising from the ashes
After his suspension from the bench two years ago — March 10, 2007 — Thomas appears to have become even more involved in mentoring through the Phoenix Program, which is designed to help at-risk students who are in danger of dropping out of school or in long-term suspension.
The Phoenix Program is run by the 100 Black Men of Greater Mobile, Inc., a group dedicated to the idea of making a positive difference in the lives of African-American youth. The program is run by 100 Black Men using federal and local funds that come through the Mobile County School System. Thomas is listed as a member of 100 Black Men’s board of directors.
According to former Mobile County School Superintendent Harold Dodge, Thomas had always been active with the Phoenix Program, but became even more so after his suspension. Dodge said Thomas was instrumental in the creation of both 100 Black Men and the Phoenix Program, which is taught at the old Blount High School. The program includes kids from sixth through 12th grades.
“Herman was an outstanding mentor,” Dodge said. “He would check on the kids at all times of the day.”
Asked whether Thomas had ever gone on the payroll of the Phoenix Program, Dodge said he wasn’t sure, as the documentation presented to the school system was not detailed enough to name individuals working for the program.
“Their budget never listed explicit personnel. Actual names never went to finance,” Dodge said.
When contacted by Lagniappe, Ralph Wilson, program director for 100 Black Men, flatly said Thomas had never been on the program’s payroll. He did say Thomas’ wife works for the program.
Marcy McNeil with the Mobile County School System said they had no indication Thomas had ever been on the Phoenix Program payroll, although the system does not keep records of who is paid by the program.
While the accusations that have clouded his time on the bench have not followed him to his work with young people in the Mobile County School System, Dodge admitted to feeling a twinge of fear when allegations against the former judge first became public.
“When the trouble started a while back and someone said Judge Thomas was volunteering at Phoenix, my first reaction was to put my hand to my head and say ‘shit,’” Dodge said. “But I went over there and watched him and everything looked OK. But I sometimes wonder if I looked at it through rose-colored glasses.”
Dodge credits Thomas with saving the Phoenix Program from being killed by the school board after former board member David Thomas’ run-ins with the law and public shenanigans made him unpopular with other members.
“When David was involved, they didn’t want to do it. The judge saved it. I don’t think he ever got any financial out of it, at least I hope not,” Dodge said. “There were just great stories about how Herman would stop by people’s houses at all hours to check on your son.”