HAMILTON, Ohio — A Butler County judge's admission that he may have been influenced by personal bias when he sentenced a convicted rapist to 33 years in prison touched off a quiet legal earthquake that could reverberate through a decade of local sex-crime cases.
Judge Charles Pater stated in a letter of recusal that his sentencing of Dustin Lawrence, convicted in 2016 of raping a then-girlfriend's 16-year-old daughter, had been affected by an incident in his own life: A member of Pater's family had once been a victim of a similar crime.
Lawrence's appeals attorney, Eric Eckes, learned this by accident.
He had initially discovered errors in Lawrence's presentence investigation when he revisited it in 2018. One such error incorrectly stated that Lawrence was convicted of violating a restraining order when the conviction was actually for a moving traffic violation.
As Eckes sought a resentencing, Pater conceded during one conversation he hadn't been fair to Lawrence in the first one.
In the letter of recusal, he wrote, "Upon further reflection of its statements in chambers to counsel on October 24, 2018, specifically, that a family member of the Court had been the victim of a similar crime which may have impacted the Court's original sentencing determination, hereby recuses himself from further hearing the above captioned matter."
Pater declined a request for further comment.
The admission sent ripples through the Butler County Court of Common Pleas. Pater has since recused himself from hearing any other cases involving sex crimes, and Butler County Prosecutor Mike Gmoser has begun sifting through 10 years of cases to contact defendants who were accused of sex crimes in Pater's courtroom.
In the letters he sends to them, Gmoser writes: "The State believes it has a legal and ethical duty to inform you of this recusal."
However, the letters also emphasize Gmoser isn't taking a position on those cases. Each and every defendant must decide individually how to proceed with the information that their treatment was influenced by a judge's personal experiences.
As for Lawrence, his appeal will be put on hold and the case remanded back to the Butler County Court of Common Pleas.
Judge Greg Howard will preside when he is resentenced in March.