Former school workers convicted of student sex could be freed

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Dothan, AL (WTVY)- Two men convicted under Alabama’s School Employee Sex Act could have their cases dismissed even though both pleaded guilty and are serving prison terms.

A Morgan County Circuit judge recently ruled the law is too broad and threw out similar charges against two former North Alabama educators.

Judge Glenn Thompson ruled earlier this month prosecutors must prove that the teacher used a "position of authority" to "coerce, groom, or otherwise obtain the illegitimate consent of the alleged victims."

Robert Lee Michael, a Rehobeth High School teacher, was the first person in Alabama charged under the law. Michael was arrested in 2012 for having sex with a 16-year-old girl in her home--he was 43 at the time.

Lanice Bonds, a resource officer at Dothan High School, was later arrested for having sex with a girl who was over the age of 16 but younger than 19.

In those cases there were no allegations that either victim was coerced and the sex acts are believed to have been consensual.
“I think the law was bad to start with,” said defense attorney Cada Carter who represents Bonds. He argued unsuccessfully in court that his client was not a school employee but, instead, a police officer assigned to work at the school but paid by the city.

Rep. Paul Lee (R-Dothan) was a freshman lawmaker when the law was passed in 2010. “When you send your child to school it should be a safe haven for them. Those teachers are there to steer them in the right direction. I expect them to steer them away from that (behavior) and not be a part of it,” Lee said.

Even though Thompson’s ruling put several convictions---Michael and Bonds among them---in jeopardy he believes the law has value. "This court does not endeavor to absolve any wrongdoing or to excuse the defendants" and said his decision should not be taken as a sign the court encouraged "any similarly situated party to engage with impunity in what may very well be criminal behavior." Morgan, though, believes the School Employee Sex Act is too broad.

In his order, Thompson cited similar laws in other states that he believes are legal. Those laws either address sex between students and employees who exercise power over them, or students and employees at the same school.

The state is appealing Thompson’s ruling. If it ultimately is ruled unconstitutional, Lee predicts lawmakers will take up the matter again. “I have no doubt that we’ll address it and fine tune it and there will be no questions the next time it comes up.

Bonds could be released from his 10-year prison sentence before the case is ultimately resolved. Carter expects a parole hearing soon and believes it should be approved. “His family is standing by him and he’s a good man who made a poor choice.”

That doesn’t appear to be the case with Michel who is serving 36 years. The structure of the sentence means he will have to serve most of the time before release unless the law under which he was convicted is ultimately tossed.