Man who assaulted disabled woman gets 18 months

March 05, 1998|By Andrea F. Siegel | Andrea F. Siegel,SUN STAFF

A former driver for a sheltered workshop in Hanover was sentenced yesterday in Anne Arundel Circuit Court to 18 months in jail for sexually assaulting a disabled employee at the workshop.

James A. Nichols, 52, of the 600 block of Brisbane Road in Baltimore entered an Alford plea to a second-degree sex offense in January, not admitting guilt but conceding that state had enough evidence to convict him. The maximum penalty is 20 years in prison.

Judge Clayton R. Greene Jr. ordered Nichols to register with police as a sex offender when he leaves jail and begins five years' probation. That makes him the first person in the county ordered to do so since the state law requiring sex offenders to register with police was expanded Oct. 1 to include adults convicted of assaulting other adults.

Greene also ordered Nichols to give a blood sample for the Maryland State Police DNA database, which is similar to police fingerprint collections.

The judge apparently was angered by defense claims that Nichols is in a "borderline range of intelligence" and did not understand that the victim was developmentally disabled because he did not see a physical ailment.

"That doesn't help the situation," Greene snapped. "The question is why is that Mr. Nichols could not control himself? I don't think it makes any difference what disabilities the victim has."

Other efforts by John Hannaway, Nichols' lawyer, to play down the circumstances also went nowhere. Greene was not convinced by statements that Nichols did not force himself on the 29-year-old woman, noting that Nichols locked the woman in the room where she was working at Opportunity Builders and that medical reports showed she was bruised.

"He used force," the judge said. "That is what he is convicted of. Whether his education is fourth grade or 20th grade, I am satisfied that he is not suffering from any mental disability that would preclude him from restraining himself."

Hannaway said tests showed his client functioned at a fourth-grade level -- roughly the same as the victim -- though he completed 10th grade.

"He understands what 'no' means," Greene said, referring to assertions that Nichols' supporters made in court.

Earlier, the judge asked two female acquaintances of Nichols whether they thought he comprehended the word. Both said he did.

"I have never known him to set out to hurt anybody or to do something wrong," said Brenda Jenkins of Baltimore, who sang with Nichols in a gospel group. The other woman described him as a "Christian man."

Nichols asked God, the victim and her parents to forgive him.

"I am sorry for things happening the way they did," he said. "Things just led to other things." Assistant State's Attorney Laura S. Kiessling said the victim remains traumatized by the assault, which occurred Feb. 14 last year. She was assembling spray paint cans when Nichols raped her, said "Happy Valentine's Day" and left, Kiessling said.

Vicki Callahan, executive director of Opportunity Builders, said later that the assault has "severely tarnished" the image of the 35-year-old organization, which she said has had a spotless record.

Several families are "reconsidering placement" of disabled relatives there, she said. Since the attack, the group has put windows in every door, eliminated the room where the assault occurred and changed other work areas so that they cannot be closed off, she said.

The group runs background checks on potential employees, but Nichols had no criminal record, Kiessling said.

Pub Date: 3/05/98

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