NASHVILLE, Tenn. (WTVF) — It’s costing taxpayers hundreds of thousands of dollars as more people file lawsuits claiming they shouldn’t be restricted by a registry that didn’t exist when they were convicted.
Dozens of people have since been removed from the registry as a result, with dozens more potentially on the way.
Thomas spent more than 20 years on Tennessee’s Sex Offender Registry but now considers himself a free man. His case is still being appealed, so we’ve agreed to stick with first names for his protection.
NewsChannel 5 Investigates first met Thomas in 2022, and that’s when he shared his story about being convicted of raping a family friend back in 1996, who died years later.
Thomas has lived much of his life away from the public, but on this day, we sat outside his Nashville home as he clutched a green thermos from his late wife.
Thomas waved and greeted neighbors passing by with their children. Most know his name by now, but not because they know his story.
It may seem ordinary and maybe even routine at times, but this is what Thomas has been searching for since we first met.
“Everybody is exercising. Everybody is living. I’m talking about, this is living,” Thomas said.
You may not know Thomas, but before April 4, you could find almost everything there was to know on Tennessee’s Sex Offender Registry.
Thomas accepted a plea deal in 1996 but says he was convinced by an attorney that his prior record would make it almost impossible to win over a jury.
Thomas says he accepted the plea agreement without understanding that this crime would now make him eligible for the newly established sex offender registry.
NewsChannel 5 Investigates doesn’t often hear from people like Thomas, because once you find out he’s been on the sex offender registry almost as long as it’s been around, we understand he’s not the easiest person to want to relate to.
We’re not here to say whether Thomas committed the crime.
What we know is that he’s been on the registry for years, only to now have his name removed in 2023.
“When I got that letter that it was off me, I couldn’t do nothing but cry,” Thomas said.
Civil rights attorney Kyle Mothershead represents Thomas and he’s using virtually the same argument he’s used for many others.
“This was not the law when you committed your offense, then they made it up after the fact and that’s against the constitution,” Mothershead said.
One by one, people have sued the state claiming the registry imposed new restrictions long after they were convicted and one by one, judges have agreed.
Thomas is now one of at least 73 cases challenging Tennessee’s Sex Offender Registry over the past five years.
Of those cases, 34 people convinced a judge to remove their names from the registry either temporarily or permanently.
A process that once took at least two years to get to this point, we’ve now seen last just one month.
“They’ve (state attorneys) been filing something saying we don’t oppose the offender being released from the registry while this case is pending,” Mothershead said.
Take Thomas for example. He was convicted in 1996.
Tennessee’s registry at the time was only meant for law enforcement to keep tabs on convicted offenders. Lawmakers passed a law replacing the registry in 2004.
Now, not only was everything about Thomas public, but he also went from being labeled an offender to a “violent sex offender.”
This meant checking in four times a year, paying an annual fee, and staying at least 1,000 feet away from a church, park or school for the rest of his life.
“I might not have been physically locked up in prison, but mentally out here, I was still in prison,” Thomas said.
Mothershead says it’s not just Thomas who’s paid the price whenever lawmakers have changed the registry.
Tennesseans are left with the offender’s bill every time the state is sued and loses one of these cases.
NewsChannel5 Investigates found that in the last five years, taxpayers have covered the $814,000 tab in legal fees for the cases already decided.
Mothershead expects hundreds of thousands more spent on the cases still pending.
“They keep finding the same thing, which is that it’s unconstitutional. So, individuals, one at a time keep being released from the registry,” Mothershead said.
Verna Wyatt is the co-founder of Tennessee Voices for Victims and says she worries for the victims who may see their offender released from the registry.
“Out of that group that are coming out, they’re going to hurt someone else. You can be sure of it. Do you think it’s worth it?” Wyatt said.
Wyatt says while the registry may feel like a life sentence for some, so is the trauma victims endure.
“It’s not punishment for you. It’s protection for them. As sad as that is, it’s their choice that brought them into that situation in the first place, and the victims never had a choice. So, you see the good part of them. The public sees the good part of them. Their victims see the real side of them,” Wyatt said.
NewsChannel 5 Investigates asked Thomas what he thinks about the concern that he and others would re-offend.
“What do you say to the people who say you’re a risk to be out here without these restrictions,” NewsChannel 5 Investigates asked.
“How can I offend when I’ve never done anything in the first place? That’s the question,” Thomas replied.
NewsChannel 5 Investigates then asked if Thomas is at all concerned that his neighbors may no longer want to talk to him once they find out more about his conviction.
“No, I’m not concerned about it. God has control over everything,” Thomas replied.
It’s faith he says that got him this far and it’s faith he intends to follow.
State attorneys appealed Thomas’ case and many others like him to the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals. There they will soon decide if it’s back to the registry or if these passing moments for Thomas could be for good.
The judges ruling on these lawsuits have said that lawmakers need to better understand how changes made to the registry every year, could make the case for even more people to say their rights were also violated.
We reached out to the offices of several lawmakers who spearheaded some of these major changes to the sex offender registry but never heard back.
Mothershead says he expects the Sixth Circuit Court decision sometime next year on if Thomas and dozens of others will be permanently removed from the registry.