- Associated Press - Friday, December 11, 2015

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) - A top Republican in the state House wrote to a federal judge to call for a lenient sentence for a former youth pastor convicted of child porn possession.

House Majority Whip Jeremy Durham of Franklin wrote the letter in March, about three months after a grand jury declined to indict him on prescription fraud charges sought by prosecutors.

Joseph Todd Neill was ultimately sentenced to more than three years in prison by U.S. District Judge Harry S. “Sandy” Mattice in Chattanooga. Police found the child porn images while investigating Neill’s sexual relationship with a 16-year-old congregant at North Fork Baptist Church in Shelbyville.

Durham’s character reference written on state House letterhead was cited by the defendant’s lawyer in seeking a lower sentence. The lawmaker urged the judge to consider Neill’s “entire life and the good he has done for society when rendering punishment on the ill-conceived act.”

Durham on Friday declined to answer questions about how he knew Neill and why he wrote the letter. He said in a text message that media coverage was “just another witch hunt.”

But other Republicans in the Legislature question Durham’s decision to vouch for someone who pleaded guilty to child porn possession.

“At a minimum, writing that letter was poor judgment,” said Senate Speaker Ron Ramsey, R-Blountville. “You’d have to think twice about ever doing anything like that. But obviously he didn’t.”

Durham in the letter said that he would not have become a lawyer and lawmaker if he hadn’t been granted a second chance after he made a “grave error” as a student at the University of Tennessee that could have led to criminal prosecution.

Durham was arrested by University of Tennessee police in 2003 on charges of vandalism, theft, and aggravated burglary. The lawmaker in his 2012 election campaign criticized his opponent for bringing up what he called “college shenanigans.”

In his March letter, Durham said prosecutors, police and university officials decided not to proceed with the case based on several factors including “my proven track record as a law-abiding and community-minded citizen up that point.”

Durham acknowledged that in Neill’s case “complete exoneration is not appropriate,” but said his previous deeds as a minister should be taken into account, including that the defendant came from “a very reputable family deeply committed to Christian service.”

“He has served as a missionary across the country leading numerous people to accept Jesus Christ as their savior,” Durham said.

Durham said Friday that his letter “in no way condoned his illegal actions and clearly stated that he deserved to be punished for those acts. I simply stated facts regarding his prior life serving others as a Christian missionary.”

Neill later pleaded guilty in state court to statutory rape by an authority figure.

According to investigative records released to the public this week, prosecutors sought to indict Durham on charges of falsifying the date on two prescriptions and trying to fill them at a supermarket pharmacy in 2013. But a grand jury declined to indict the lawmaker in January.

In a recorded interview with a drug task force agent, Durham offered several possibilities about who had changed the date on the prescription, including workers who moved his office in the state Capitol complex, his legislative assistant or secretaries in the doctor’s office.

“I’m trying to defeat probable cause,” Durham told the agent.

Durham has stressed that that case was closed without criminal charges.

“The Williamson County grand jury vetted this case two years ago and were obviously satisfied that nothing unlawful occurred,” he said earlier this week.

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