Former teacher Roberta Blackwell Walter on Friday withdrew her guilty plea stemming from an allegation that she raped and molested a 15-year-old Fayette County high school student more than 30 years ago.
What followed was a fireworks show of how American jurisprudence works.
Walter had reconsidered her guilty plea after Fayette Circuit Judge James Ishmael Jr. insisted on jail time despite a prosecutor's recommendation of probation.
Walter and her attorney Jim Lowry were allowed to withdraw Walter's guilty plea to two charges of sexual misconduct because of the judge's addition of jail time to Walter's sentence.
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In exchange for her testimony this year against another teacher, Jack Russell Hubbard, prosecutors had agreed to reduce Walter's original charges from third-degree sodomy and third-degree rape. Special prosecutor Tom Smith recommended a sentence of one year for each charge to be served concurrently and probated for two years.
The charges dated to 1978 and involved Carol Lynne Maner, then 15, and a ninth-grader, Thomas "Beau" Goodman III.
Ishmael said at Walter's original sentencing this month that he wanted Walter to go to jail until Jan. 1 before being eligible for probation. The nearly three months in jail would be "less than a slap on the wrist," the judge said.
"I'm not satisfied with it, but it's the best I can do under the circumstances," Ishmael said then.
During testimony in July, Walter admitted she had raped and molested Maner.
On the stand, Walter said she had lied to state prosecutors and police in the past about her behavior to protect herself and her family.
On Friday, Ishmael questioned Walter's attorney about the basis for the withdrawal of the guilty plea.
Speaking so that only a few in the court could hear, Lowry said the case was especially "emotionally charged" for the judge. He called into question the "unheard of" nature of not accepting the plea bargain. He offered that Ishmael should have recused himself from the proceedings under the circumstances, most notably that the judge had voiced a clear opinion of his distaste for the crime that Walter had confessed to.
Ishmael stood during Lowry's explanation and poured himself a cup of water. When the defense attorney had finished speaking, a few minutes of silence passed before the judge spoke. He said he was "taken aback by the basis" for the withdrawal of the guilty plea.
The thought, he said, that he should recuse himself at the sentencing because he had sat through the case and heard all the evidence and had voiced an opinion about the case after the jury had spoken is anathema to the American justice system.
"I make no apologies for stating I was appalled by a 30-year-old teacher who took advantage of a young lady in troubled times — what was she, 14 or 15 — with inappropriate sexual conduct," Ishmael said.
Then, barely catching his breath, the judge turned himself to something that had occurred on Oct. 26, when one of the lawyers present had what the judge referred to as an "end-run" around him. It was a uniform citation for a misdemeanor against Walter for the crime she committed 30 years ago.
The execution of the citation would have effectively taken the case out of Ishmael's hands and put it in district court. Then, presumably, the statue of limitations would have run out and the case would have been dismissed.
"It is strange to this court and terribly inappropriate," Ishmael admonished both attorneys, "for this investiture to occur because you don't like my position. You do what you have to do, but I do not take lightly the suggestion that the order I entered earlier or statements I made two weeks ago or in open court somehow disqualify me to hear this case. I did not mean to offend the criminal justice system."
Smith, outside of the courtroom, said his actions were appropriate.
"The Commonwealth has to try to fulfill its part of the agreement with Ms. Walter. I live up to my word. The judge had to do what he had to do. Mr. Lowry had to do what he had to."
Maner sat quietly throughout the maneuverings. She said she is "taking a deep breath."
A status hearing on Walter's case is set for Dec. 4 in Ishmael's courtroom.