Confusion leads to Rhea County man convicted of sexual battery being released early from jail

Victim’s mother glad offender is back in custody

Rhea County Sheriff's Office / Robert Manual Thurman
Rhea County Sheriff's Office / Robert Manual Thurman

A Rhea County man held on a sexual battery conviction was released long before county officials and the mother of one of the victims believe he was due to be let out.

Robert Manuel Thurman was convicted in two separate but related cases in Rhea County Circuit Court stemming from incidents that happened Sept. 15-16, 2018, according to court records. In one case, Thurman was convicted by a jury, and in the other, he was convicted on a guilty plea.

Thurman is now back in custody, according to the Rhea County Sheriff's Office. He turned himself in after being free for a couple of weeks.

But when it comes to how much jail time Thurman was supposed to have served or how much is still owed, it depends on who is asked.

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Kristin Hatcher is the mother of one of the two victims involved in the case, and she said Tuesday in a phone interview that she stayed on top of court actions throughout the case.

"It's awfully peculiar to me," Hatcher said. "It's concerning. I thought there were procedures in place for when someone who has raped you is let out."

As the case made its way through the system, Hatcher checked every week on its progress, and after Thurman's convictions, she checked the Rhea County Jail's online inmate roster to make sure he was behind bars.

"Jan. 2 is when I discovered he was out," she said. "Then I looked on the sex offender registry, he was out. I called the DA's office and asked what was happening."

She was contacted by Dave McGovern, the former assistant district attorney assigned to the 2018 case who has since retired, who said Tuesday in a phone interview he was confused by Thurman's release and believes he still owes more time.

In Thurman's jury trial March 30 on charges of rape and providing alcohol to a minor, a Rhea County jury convicted him on a reduced charge of sexual battery and providing the alcohol, according to court documents.

He was sentenced on the felony sexual battery charge to two years in prison to be served at 30% as a standard offender before he reaches eligibility for parole, which amounts to seven months and six days, according to court records.

On the misdemeanor alcohol charge, Thurman was sentenced to 11 months and 29 days in the county jail, of which 75% must be served before becoming eligible for work release, furlough, trusty status and rehabilitative programs, court records state.

Thurman was not immediately placed in custody upon his jury conviction, McGovern said, but during the March trial, it became apparent Thurman had violated his bond conditions in the second case against him stemming from separate incidents on the same day in September 2018.

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Thurman was placed back in custody at that point not on a verdict in the first case but on an April 8, 2022, handwritten order for violating bond conditions in the second case, McGovern said. Thurman was ordered to return to jail for the violation for a period of 28 days in a sentence that applied to his second case.

In the second case, Thurman pleaded guilty to a charge of sexual battery and was sentenced to two years in prison suspended on an alternative sentence to one year, 11 months and two days of supervised probation, according to court documents.

McGovern said he believes Thurman owes at least 11 months, 29 days in jail and possibly more on his state sentences.

Rhea County Sheriff Mike Neal said he and his staff understood Thurman had more time to serve when the state's release orders came in September.

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"We actually kept the guy 90-something days longer than we were supposed to while we were emailing all this stuff to the state because we felt like he shouldn't be getting out," Neal said Tuesday in a phone interview. "Then the final one they sent me said we were basically holding him illegally and I need to let him go. They've been trying to get me to release him since Sept. 13, and we thought it was wrong. I didn't release him till Dec. 21 or 22."

In a statement emailed Tuesday, Neal said he received the Department of Correction email leading to Thurman's release Dec. 20.

"Per our conversation with the state's sentence management office, Mr. Thurman was released to felony probation," Neal said in the statement. "Mr. Thurman was held for an additional 93 days while my staff worked with the Department of Correction trying to clarify this with them."

Neal included the emails between Rhea County and the Department of Correction.

The emails contain considerable discussion of Thurman's two-year state sentence and the determination for his release on parole, but the emails lack a discussion of Thurman's 11-month, 29-day misdemeanor sentence. That sentence, according to court documents, is to be served in the county jail.

Prison officials said Tuesday they only did what sentencing orders told them to do.

"Robert Thurman was given a two-year sentence with eligibility for determinate release to probation after serving 30% -- roughly seven months and six days -- of his sentence," spokesman Robert Reburn said Tuesday in an email. "He was also eligible to earn sentence reduction credits. The Department of Correction properly calculated his time served and notified the district attorney and Sheriff's Office on Aug. 4, 2022, that he would be eligible for release in September. By statute, either respective office can oppose the release. TDOC never received notification of opposition, and the certificate of release was issued.

"Since Mr. Thurman's release in December, he has cooperated with his supervising officer and adhered to all rules and regulations of his supervision," Reburn said.

He said the prison system does not have the authority to calculate time for misdemeanor offense sentences.

That's where some of the confusion might have developed, according to Thurman's lawyer, Chattanooga attorney Dan Ripper.

Ripper said Tuesday in a phone interview he has not heard from Thurman or his family about any problems in serving the ordered sentence.

Thurman should have only been released from his state sentence on the felony charge he was serving in the county jail. Thurman was then to begin serving his 11-month, 29-day misdemeanor sentence right where he sat -- in the county jail, Ripper said.

Authorities weren't supposed to release Thurman from jail, just from the state sentence so he could begin serving the 11-month, 29-day misdemeanor sentence, he said. Ripper also said he probably hasn't heard from Thurman or his family because his client understood what his sentence was supposed to be and was only obeying orders.

"None of this is his fault. He does not control the manner and nature of his service, and he's at the mercy of whoever has custody of him," Ripper said. "He just wants to do his time and rebuild his life and move on."

Meanwhile, Hatcher said Tuesday she was happy Thurman was back in custody.

Contact Ben Benton at or 423-757-6569.

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