HOUSTON (AP) — When U.S. District Judge Samuel Kent enters a courtroom on Monday, he'll be making judicial history. But it won't be the kind he'll want to remember.
Kent will join the handful of U.S. federal judges who have taken part in a trial as a defendant, and the first charged with a sex crime.
The 59-year-old Kent is accused of fondling two female court employees as he tried to force himself on the women and have them perform sex acts.
Jury selection in his trial was set to begin on Monday. If convicted, he faces up to life in prison and a fine of up to $250,000.
Kent has pleaded innocent to the six charges he is facing — five related to federal sex crimes and one for obstructing justice, in which he is accused of lying to an investigative committee.
His nearly 19 years on the bench might buy Kent some credibility with the jury, said Barry Pollack, an attorney not connected to the case.
"What you might see happen is the jury take the presumption of innocence a little more seriously," said Pollack, with the Washington, D.C. firm of Miller & Chevalier. "But if the allegations are proven, the jury would be very offended a federal judge engaged in that conduct."
A gag order in the case has prevented prosecutors, defense attorneys and others connected to the case from commenting.
During a court hearing last week in which he unsuccessfully tried to have the obstruction charge thrown out or severed, Dick DeGuerin, Kent's attorney, said his client wanted to testify at trial.
"Judge Kent believes his conduct with both of the (women) was mutual and consensual," said DeGuerin, who has represented such high-profile clients as former U.S. House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, Branch Davidian leader David Koresh and Robert Durst.
Kent's former case manager, Cathy McBroom, filed a complaint against Kent in May 2007 and the Judicial Council of the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals began an investigation. The Associated Press does not normally name alleged victims of sexual abuse, but McBroom's attorney and her family have used her name in publicly discussing the case. The other woman was identified in court last week as Kent's former secretary.
She accused Kent of harassing her over a four-year period, culminating in March 2007, when she said the judge pulled up her blouse and bra and tried to escalate contact until they were interrupted.
The judicial council suspended Kent in September 2007 for four months with pay but didn't detail the allegations against him. It also transferred him 50 miles northwest from Galveston, where he had worked since being appointed in 1990, to Houston.
A Justice Department investigation of McBroom's claims led to Kent's indictment in August on three federal sex charges.
Last month, prosecutors added two more sex charges and the obstruction charge, accusing Kent of trying to engage his former secretary in a sex act and then lying about it to the judicial council.
DeGuerin has said Kent and his secretary were involved in a longtime affair and she is one of his "staunchest supporters." De Guerin said Kent didn't mention the incident to the judicial council out of the concern a "gentleman" would have for keeping the affair a secret.
But DeGuerin has also indicated he plans to call several expert witnesses who will testify they have been treating Kent for impotence since 1999.
"Neither erectile dysfunction … nor any other physical or mental conditions cited by the defendant prevented him from committing the charged offenses," prosecutors wrote in a motion earlier this month.
Pollack said cases where it's a "he-said-she-said" type of situation can be tough to prove.
"If they can show a pattern of conduct, that is often the way the government deals with a lack of physical evidence or witnesses," he said.
Kent's attorneys subpoenaed McBroom's personal records, including her credit history, "which could be relevant to her general credibility," they wrote in a motion last month.
"In no way is a victim's credit history relevant … to whether she was sexually assaulted by a defendant," prosecutors responded.
Michael Weinstein, a former federal prosecutor, said a strategy of trying to "dirty up" the victim can be risky.
"If you take this aggressive approach to the victim, that she consented, she asked for it … that could backfire very quickly and create sympathy for the victims," said Weinstein, an attorney with the Hackensack, N.J.-based firm of Cole Schotz.
If convicted, Kent, an appointee of President George H.W. Bush, would likely face impeachment by Congress.
The last federal judge indicted was Robert F. Collins, in February 1991, for scheming with a New Orleans businessman to split a drug smuggler's $100,000 payoff. He was convicted and sentenced later that year to nearly seven years in prison.
Four judges were indicted in the 1980s and one in the 1970s.
Copyright 2009 The Associated Press.