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Sentence tossed for judge’s religious comments

A Nebraska appeals court threw out a child molester’s sentence Tuesday because of religious comments made by the trial judge. It was not the judge's first such experience.
/ Source: The Associated Press

An appeals court threw out a child molester’s sentence Tuesday because of religious comments made by the trial judge — the same judge who had had another sentence thrown out for the same reason in 1998.

Jay Bruna, a former bus driver sentenced to 15 to 50 years for sexually assaulting a child on his bus, will remain in prison until he is rensentenced.

The Nebraska Court of Appeals based its decision on the fact that District Judge George Thompson made religious references before sentencing, referring to his own earlier case.

Thompson said he could not comment on the ruling because, as the presiding judge in Sarpy County, he will have to assign the judge who will resentence Bruna.

Read excerpt from Bible on homosexuality
In 1998, the Nebraska Supreme Court overturned the sentence of Aaron Pattno, charged with sexually abusing a boy, because at his sentencing, Thompson read a lengthy excerpt from the Bible that addressed homosexuality.

In throwing out the sentence, the court found that “a reasonable person could conclude that the sentence was based upon the personal bias or prejudice of the judge.”

In 1999, the U.S. Supreme Court refused to reinstate Pattno’s sentence.

Judge recalls earlier case
Before sentencing Bruna, Thompson referred to that earlier case, saying: “I probably would be better off not saying anything and simply imposing a sentence. The last time I sentenced a person that could be labeled as a ‘pedophile’ I quoted from an author, a learned man that happened to be a contributor to the Bible.

“The case was reversed and resentenced by another judge to probation,” Thompson said. “If people would continue to read that author, they would find that it’s not a message of condemnation, but of hope.”

In Tuesday’s ruling, the Appeals Court said Thompson “has again inserted his own religious views in a sentencing proceeding.”

In taking the original case to the U.S. Supreme Court, state prosecutors had argued that the state court decision, if not overturned, would threaten judges’ religious freedom. The high court made no comment in declining to reinstate the sentence.