Sex crimes in Alabama come with a heavy stigma attached. Nevertheless, everyone's right to due process is constitutionally protected, including the appeals process. The case of a female Washington County teacher convicted of luring a 14-year-old male student for sex is just such an example.
Early last year, a Mobile, AL, federal jury convicted 56-year-old Charlene Schmitz of using a computer and cell phone to lure an 8th grade student for sex. She was sentenced to 10 years and one month in prison and is currently serving time in Florida while her criminal defense lawyer continues to pursue her appeal.
The Washington County school system's attempts to fire Schmitz following her conviction have been hindered by an Alabama law that gives tenured teachers the right to challenge their dismissal in front of an arbitrator. And although an arbitrator has been selected, legally no hearings can be held until Schmitz's appeals and related state charges have been resolved.
Recent reports reflect the outrage that a convicted sex offender and felon is still employed by the county and continues to receive a salary and retirement benefits totally nearly $70,000 since her termination in May 2008. According to reports, Schmitz would also be eligible for any pay raises between now and the conclusion of her case.
The anger directed at this woman is understandable, but the fact is until her appeal has been decided, she has the right to refrain from self-incrimination. But this right could be jeopardized by any arbitration hearings held prior to the end of the criminal cases. Though it is frustrating for the school administration, as well as for the community, this is her right. Constitutionally protected and guaranteed.
As a Birmingham criminal defense lawyer, I have represented many different clients over the years. Although the crimes of which they were accused vary widely, the one thing they shared was equal protection under the law. What people forget here is that on appeal this woman's conviction could be overturned. So until then, her rights must be maintained.
Sadly, even if she is exonerated, her life has been turned upside down. Being accused of a child sex crime, even if proven innocent, could be difficult to live down and she may find herself a pariah in the community regardless of her possible innocence.
No matter what the final outcome, the complaints of her continuing to receive pay do not consider her rights under the law. Not until the legal process has reached its end should this woman be required to surrender one bit of that which she is legally entitled.
Washington County teacher convicted of luring student for sex continues to draw salary, AL.com, June 2, 2009
Catch-22, DothanEasgle.com, June 3, 2009