ATHENS, Ala. — Former Limestone County District Judge Douglas Patterson pleaded guilty Friday to charges stemming from theft of a court-supervised fund and from elderly clients while he was in private practice.
The plea agreement came during a hearing Friday morning in Limestone County Circuit Court.
Patterson, who was placed on leave in August 2019 and indicted last December, was set to go on trial in mid-November.
He pleaded guilty to all three counts of his indictment: using his position or office for personal gain; financial exploitation of the elderly in the first degree, and theft of property in the third degree. His sentencing is set for December.
The plea agreement says the prosecutors and Patterson “do not agree to a recommended sentence.” The court filing says Patterson will accept whatever legal sentence the court issues and waives the right to appeal.
Alabama Attorney General Steve Marshall issued a statement following the guilty plea.
“Patterson’s actions as an attorney and as a judge tarnished and debased the judicial system,” Marshall said. “His conviction sends a clear message that public officials who abuse their position, harm vulnerable parties, and flagrantly disregard Alabama law will be held accountable for their crimes.”
The 38-year-old Patterson, who was appointed to the bench in 2016, was indicted on charges of third-degree theft, financial exploitation of the elderly and using his position for personal gain.
He was accused of stealing tens of thousands of dollars by writing about 70 checks to himself from the Limestone County Juvenile Court Services Fund over a period of years. More than $47,000 that was supposed to go to juvenile programs and juvenile court staff among other things, prosecutors said.
Patterson was also accused of taking money before becoming a judge, when he worked as an attorney and served as a conservator for incapacitated people.
The plea deal announcement came two days after his attorney Chuck Warren told the court Patterson had asked him to withdraw as his attorney.
During Friday’s hearing specially-appointed Judge Steven Haddock said Warren needed to be involved in plea discussions with prosecutors from the Alabama Attorney General’s office, along with Patterson’s other attorney, Dan Totten. Totten had represented Patterson before his indictment.
Those discussions took place before Patterson entered his plea.
Patterson also agree to pay restitution, including $47,000 to the Limestone County Juvenile Court Services Fund and $25,000 to the daughter of a former client.
While it is unusual to see a judge prosecuted for theft, the case took an even more unusual turn when a confession letter, apparently written by Patterson surfaced in January.
Patterson’s letter reads in part, “In the letter, Patterson admits to stealing from elderly disabled clients. He goes on:
“Then I betrayed the trust of the people of Limestone County by stealing from funds belonging to them and placed under my control. I regret allowing these charges to go unanswered this long. It is soul-freezing to finally face the enormity of my guilt.”
The letter prompted the Alabama Judicial Inquiry Commission to launch an investigation. The COVID-19 pandemic shut down most court activity, but Patterson was due for a trial on alleged judicial misconduct in early July. He resigned a few days before the trial was to begin.
Until Patterson’s resignation he was still being paid by the State of Alabama. He received his salary of $10,880 a month from the time he placed in leave in August until June 2020. That includes more than $98,000 from October 2019 through June 2020.