Former Ohio Supreme Court justice supports judge’s decision in Springboro sex case

A former Ohio Supreme Court Justice defended the eight-year prison sentence ordered recently for the ex-Springboro gym teacher convicted on 34 counts of gross sexual imposition involving first-grade girls in his class.

Paul Pfeifer, executive director of the Ohio Judicial Conference, said Judge Robert Peeler's sentencing of John Austin Hopkins balanced the different interests a judge needs to take into account in cases involving multiple victims and multiple felony charges.

Peeler has been criticized for the sentence by the parents of the victims and others, including an online petition seeking to remove the Warren County judge from the judicial bench

“Emotion overcomes what would be a reasonable sentence,” Pfeifer said during a telephone interview this week.

“Prosecutors are always wanting to stack, stack, stack. That’s possible to do, but that’s really not right.”

On June 3, Peeler sentenced Hopkins, 26, of Springboro and designated him a Tier II sex offender, concluding a three-hour sentencing hearing in Warren County Common Pleas Court.

RELATED: Ex-Springboro teacher gets 8 years in prison for sex crimes of 1st-grade girls

“People are punishing themselves for what you have done to these children,” Peeler said, while reading excerpts from gripping, tearful statements of nine of 27 victims.

Prosecutors urged Peeler to sentence Hopkins to at least 27 years in prison, one for each victim, and expressed dissatisfaction afterward at Peeler’s sentence.

“There’s nothing legally preventing a longer sentence,” Warren County Prosecutor David Fornshell said.

Pfeifer, who now heads the organization through which Ohio judges “make improvements in our courts and the administration of justice,” said Ohio lawmakers were working on bill that would limit “stacking” of charges. He suggested Fornshell was “grandstanding” by pushing for the longer prison term.

“There’s a big problem in the law when you get to multiple offenses. There is always a pressure to say. ‘You 0ught to stack all of these.’”

RELATED: Springboro parents want ex-teacher’s mom reassigned over court outburst

While acknowledging Hopkins crimes were “despicable,” Pfeifer noted there was no rape.

He emphasized punishment and rehabilitation need to be balanced in deciding a sentence. Prisons are crowded and some weight has to be given to the fact inmates like Hopkins will be released.

“‘It has to be reasonable,” added Pfeifer, a long-time lawyer and former state legislator, but never a trial judge. He served four terms on the Ohio Supreme Court.

In response to Pfeifer, Fornshell issued a statement:

“The sentence we requested was based upon the fact that Mr. Hopkins utilized a position of trust to sexually molest 27 first grade girls, he traumatized several dozen families specifically and an entire community and school district, his own expert’s psychological report indicated that he continued to be sexually attracted to six-year-old girls, and he never took any responsibility whatsoever for his actions, with the judge even saying at sentencing that Mr. Hopkins continued to be ‘in denial’”.

Parents had hoped Hopkins would get at least 10 years, so that the victims could be out of school before he returned to Springboro, said Angela Wallace, a lawyer representing them in a federal lawsuit against Hopkins and the Springboro school district.

RELATED: Parents sue Springboro schools, former teacher over sex abuse case

“To not reach that was devastating,” Wallace said. “Obviously the parents are very disappointed by the sentence.”

Wallace discounted the fact Hopkins had no prior record in making the sentence, indicating sex offenders rarely have records until they are charged.

Peeler, a longtime lawyer and common-pleas judge for 10 years, is barred by ethics rules from responding to criticism of the sentence. Before he levied it, he offered an extended explanation.

The sentence calls for a mandatory eight years behind bars. For 25 years after his release, Hopkins will be living according to state restrictions on sex offenders.

Peeler explained he split the sentence, levying five-year terms on what he found to be the most serious cases and three years for those deemed less serious. State law restricts the number of consecutive sentences, so the total came to eight years.

Judges have to balance punishment and rehabilitation of the defendant, as well as protection of the public and restitution of the victims.

“The sentence imposed for a felony shall be reasonably calculated to achieve those three overriding purposes of felony sentencing set forth,” Peeler said in his decision, “commensurate with and not demeaning to the seriousness of the offender’s conduct and its impact on the victims.”

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