A young man in shackles stood in silence, the seconds ticking by, as Circuit Judge Thomas Hughston Jr. stared down at the paperwork before him, considering the list of offenses summarizing the man’s criminal career. The man had just pleaded guilty to a stalking charge, and Hughston wanted him to understand the ramifications of that action.

“You’re about that close,” Hughston said, holding his fingers a hair apart, “to you going to prison for a long time. A young man like you, it wouldn’t be nice. It wouldn’t be a nice place to be.”

Hughston paused, leaned his chair forward, and sentenced the man to five years behind bars. But before the weight of that sentence could sink in, Hughston quickly suspended the prison time and placed the man on probation for two years.

Relief washed over the young convict as he realized he would remain a free man.

Scenes like this play out regularly inside courtroom 4D in the Charleston County courthouse, where Hughston presides over dozens of plea hearings each month. A short, bespectacled man with a head of white hair and a deep, gravelly voice, he sits in judgment on a parade of criminals seeking leniency in return for an admission of guilt.

They, their families, their attorneys and their victims fill the hard wooden seats in the gallery and, at times, overflow into the hallway outside. Hearing more than 1,300 pleas in a year, Hughston has the process down to a science, dispensing justice in what he sees as a firm, but humane, manner.

“I want them to feel good when they leave my courtroom,” he told The Post and Courier in a recent interview, “because it’s the first step in rehabilitation.”

Hughston’s approach to punishment has drawn scrutiny and criticism lately, following decisions that helped two high-profile offenders escape years in prison for their crimes. One decision kept an accused child molester on the streets. Another halved the sentence of a drunk driver who killed an elderly woman.

For years, members of the law enforcement community have grumbled about Hughston’s soft touch in sentencing, referring to him as “Judge Hug-a-Thug” — and worse. But like some lawyers who also have chaffed at Hughston’s perceived leniency, none would agree to speak on the record, saying they did not want to anger a judge who could preside over their cases in the future.

Lately, though, some victims’ families and their advocates have become increasingly vocal in their criticism of Hughston. Among them were the family members of 72-year-old Eleanor Caperton, who were enraged when Hughston reduced the sentence of the drunk driver who killed her.

“In my opinion, (Hughston) thinks that he is above the law,” said Gina Buchardt, Caperton’s niece.

The Post and Courier reviewed Hughston’s sentencing records for the past year and compared those numbers with the records of two other judges from the same circuit, Markley Dennis and Kristi Harrington. The analysis found:

Hughston, 70, placed more than twice as many offenders on probation than he sent to prison, nearly half of all his cases.

Harrington, 44, sentenced slightly more offenders to probation than she did to prison.

Dennis, 65, put roughly a third of offenders on probation. He sent a clear majority to prison.

The review found that Hughston sentenced twice as many offenders in the past year as Dennis and Harrington did combined. That’s because those judges handle criminal trials while Hughston does not.

The records also do not reflect how many of the sentences Hughston imposed by following the recommendations put forth by prosecutors or were the result of negotiated punishments agreed upon by the attorneys involved.

Hughston said he doesn’t believe he’s too lenient, particularly when his heavy case load is taken into account.

“I think I do a good job at judging. It’s the best job in the world as far as I’m concerned. If everybody sentenced like me, it would be great.”

Methods

On a recent morning, Hughston pointed to a white poster board on an easel inside the chambers he shares with another judge. On it, in bold-face black lettering, was a list of factors Hughston said he takes into consideration when sentencing every criminal: deterrence, incapacitation, rehabilitation and retribution.

With each case, Hughston said, he tries to learn as much as he can about the players involved, the lives they have led and what led them to his courtroom so he can impose a sentence that he considers meaningful and fair.

“The most important thing that a decision-maker can do, a judge can do, is to ask the right question,” he said. “Through those questions you create the scene of the crime.”

These principles have guided him in the 28 years he has served as a judge.

Hughston, who grew up in Greenwood, spent years as a defense attorney before he came to the bench. The former high school athlete and Citadel graduate also was a state lawmaker for eight years, and spent three decades as a high school football referee on the side.

But it’s the law that has been his driving passion. He has no real hobbies, other than tending to the grounds of his church, and there are few other places he would rather be than on the bench, he said.

Hughston tried retirement in 1998, but that didn’t last long. “I came back from retirement for very little pay,” he said with a chuckle. “There’s nothing more rewarding than doing this job as you think it should be done.”

One perk is that he rarely has to travel like active circuit judges must do around the state, he said. He mostly stays put in Charleston County, which is part of the 9th Judicial Circuit, dividing his time between criminal and civil cases.

Attorney Charlie Condon, a former 9th Circuit solicitor and state attorney general, called Hughston “one of the best judges in South Carolina.” Condon, known as a law-and-order Republican, said people should not jump to conclusions about Hughston’s sentencing record without knowing the facts involved in those cases.

“I think he tempers justice with mercy in a really appropriate fashion,” Condon said.

Ninth Circuit Public Defender Ashley Pennington agreed. He said Hughston is appalled by crime and sees its results much more than the average citizen, but he strives to balance punishment with a desire for a better, long-term outcome for society, he said.

“My own sense of him is that he feels the lock-them-up, throw-away-the-key approach has failed when it comes to providing a safer community when people are released,” Pennington said. “It does a good job of incarcerating them while they are gone, but I think he’s very conscious of the fact that part of the criminal justice system is steering people who are capable of doing better toward a healthier lifestyle.”

Others don’t see it that way. Charleston Thug Life, a local law-and-order blog, has kept a steady drumbeat of criticism for months calling for Hughston’s departure. In one post, Hughston is blasted for not sending a man to prison who committed four offenses while already on probation for other crimes. In another, Hughston is faulted for giving probation to a drug convict who later was charged with armed robbery.

Calling him Judge Thomas “Felon’s Friend” Hughston, the anonymous blogger urges citizens to pressure state lawmakers to dump Hughston.

Despite such rhetoric, no official complaints have been filed with the South Carolina Judicial Merit Screening Commission, which periodically reviews judges. With no opposition, the commission has waived Hughston through to reappointment without a formal hearing since 2001.

Decisions draw scorn

Still, some of Hughston’s most recent decisions have struck a nerve in the legal community.

On July 11, Hughston gave 55-year-old dentist John Newton Cagle probation on a charge of lewd act on a minor.

Cagle, who had been accused of inappropriately touching an 8-year-old girl in his Sullivan’s Island home, had entered an Alford plea, meaning he did not admit guilt but conceded there was enough evidence to convict him.

As part of his sentence, Cagle will have to register as a sex offender and wear a satellite monitoring device for life. The victim’s family did not oppose the sentence, but some people, including former People Against Rape Director Melanie Marek, felt prison was warranted.

“The judge should have given him some time,” she said.

Hughston called the sentence a just punishment, one that would keep Cagle in line. “Everyone in the community knows about it, knows what he’s done,” he said. “I think I accomplished everything good I could accomplish with that sentence.”

Hughston drew more scorn when he cut in half a 15-year prison sentence he had imposed in January for Samuel McCauley, who at age 19 killed Eleanor Caperton in a drunk-driving crash on Interstate 26 in July 2011. The judge took that action in June after McCauley’s attorney presented information that his original sentence was too high compared with other felony DUI cases in the county.

But the move, done without a formal hearing, angered Caperton’s family, who didn’t learn about it until two months later.

The South Carolina chapter of Mothers Against Drunk Driving called Hughston’s action “underhanded,” and 9th Circuit Solicitor Scarlett Wilson said in a motion that the judge’s handling of the resentencing “threatens the integrity of our criminal justice system.”

Phyllis Savenkoff, Caperton’s sister, felt so slighted that she filed a formal complaint with Gov. Nikki Haley’s office.

“I don’t believe our family got justice at all. I feel like his behavior was very unprofessional and made our family very uncomfortable and feel irrelevant,” she said. “This is not the way a judge should conduct himself. Hopefully somewhere down the line, he won’t be on the bench.”

Haley’s staff declined to comment on the complaint, citing confidentiality laws.

The disdain of his critics is not lost on Hughston, who lately has received some angry phone calls and anonymous letters.

“You can’t help but listen to them and know it affects you,” he said, adding that it is difficult not to take the criticism personally.

Still, Hughston stands by his work and his belief in rehabilitation, that people can improve their lives and, at times, deserve another chance.

“The easiest thing for a judge to do is sentence defendants to the maximum in every case. No other facts are considered. I don’t think it results in a just sentence,” he said.

So, in most cases, Hughston offers advice to criminals, as he did recently with a man who pleaded guilty to having a gun during a traffic stop.

“What I keep telling people like you is if you think you’re going to go somewhere where you think you may need a pistol, don’t go,” Hughston said, shaking his head. “Stay home. Go to the picture show. Go play basketball or baseball.”

And with that, he let the man go free.

Reach Natalie Caula at 937-5594 or Twitter.com/ncaula.