A man who confessed to raping an 8-year-old girl found an unlikely advocate in the Moore County judge who accepted his guilty plea.
Zachary David Thomsen had agreed to a minimum 25-year prison sentence on charges of first-degree rape of a child and first-degree sexual offense in a December 2013 deal with prosecutors that resulted in the dismissal of several lesser sex charges.
Thomsen knew he faced the prospect of spending the rest of his life behind bars if a jury convicted him on all counts. The plea bargain imposed a fair sentence and spared the victim from potentially recounting the horror of her assault on the witness stand.
The prosecution and defense were satisfied with the arrangement. But Resident Superior Court Judge James M. Webb cried foul.
In a stunningly bizarre outcome, Webb slashed Thomsen’s minimum sentence to 12 years, but not before downplaying the severity of sexual assault, publicly embarrassing the victim’s mother and giving Thomsen a pat on the back for a class he took in high school.
At what should have been a brief sentencing hearing, the judge called the victim’s mother to the stand and interrogated her about an incident reported five years prior when the teenage son of the young girl’s caretaker had been accused of touching her on the outside of her clothing.
“(The mother) responded adversely to this questioning, asking: “Why [do] we have to bring this up?” and “Why do we have to talk about this, sir? and “Why is this important, sir?” N.C. Court of Appeals Judge Robert N. Hunter wrote in his review of the case.
Webb brought it up to establish a mitigating factor he would later use to shorten Thomsen’s sentence. He insinuated the girl’s parents shouldn’t have left her with the then-18-year-old Thomsen in light of the previous incident.
Another mitigating factor Webb cited was the absence of physical trauma at the time of the 8-year-old’s medical exam. He showed no concern for the lifelong emotional scars the innocent victim is forced to bear.
Perhaps the most puzzling brownie point Webb awarded was for Thomsen’s participation in Junior ROTC. Well, your honor, Ted Bundy had been a Boy Scout. That didn’t keep him out of the electric chair.
In a Court of Appeals opinion vacating Webb’s lenient sentence, the judge’s skepticism of the victim’s family and favoritism for the rape convict was on full display. It turns our stomach.
Webb said Thomsen didn’t deserve 25 years because previous plea bargains had doled out less time for second-degree murder. We believe that’s a differential better remedied by demanding harsher sentences for killers than by giving lighter ones to rapists.
Rape ranks among the most serious violent crimes on the books for good reason. Victims are saddled with a life sentence; many struggle with anxiety, depression and mental illness as a direct result of the abuse they endure. It is a crime that should carry severe punishment. Twelve years is a grotesque injustice.
The good news is that the Court of Appeals threw out Webb’s order this week and sent the case back to Moore County for a new sentencing hearing.
The bad news is that Webb, whose show of profound prejudice should preclude him from ever hearing another sexual assault case, is still on the bench in our superior court division.