By Bob Allen
A Mississippi judge on Wednesday refused to reduce a 10-year prison sentence he handed down to a former Southern Baptist traveling evangelist and popular youth speaker convicted of video voyeurism in 2012.
“I think basically I got you right,” DeSoto County circuit judge Gerald Chatham told prisoner Sammy Nuckolls, who preached at churches across the country and events including LifeWay Christian Resources Centrifuge summer camps before he was caught secretly recording video of women while they took showers and during other private moments in Arkansas and Mississippi and allegedly in Texas and Virginia.
Nuckolls, who acknowledged at trial watching women at his home in Olive Branch, Miss., without their knowledge, filed a motion in June requesting judicial review of two five-year sentences that run consecutively and 11 others that are concurrent. Had all 13 sentences been consecutive, it would have added up to 65 years.
After 17 months behind bars, however, Nuckolls’ lawyer said his client is remorseful, has learned from his mistakes and due to restrictions that come with being a registered sex offender, would pose no danger to society. Attorney Ronald Michael of Booneville, Miss., asked the court to give Nuckolls credit for time served and place him under house arrest with monitoring and treatment for as long as Judge Chatham desired.
Two witnesses who work at Alcorn County Regional Correctional Facility described Nuckolls as a volunteer tutor in the institution’s GED program who excels in teaching math, gets along with groups behind the walls that don’t get along with each other and relates to staff more like a colleague than a typical inmate.
“I don’t think we have a lot we can offer him other than to keep him locked up,” said Jason Kay, a social worker and program director at Alcorn. “Sam has more to offer us than we have to offer him.”
Prosecutor Steven Jubera suggested Nuckolls’ aims were not altruistic but driven by the same “narcissistic tendencies” that got him in trouble in the first place.
“House arrest is really not going to prevent him from doing what he did in his own home in the first place,” Jubera said.
Chatham said he was pleased to hear that Nuckolls is doing good work and adjusting well to prison. “Perhaps that is your calling,” he said.
As to Nuckolls’ motives, the judge said: “Only God Almighty can see your heart. What you are in front of me for is the pain and agony you have inflicted on 13 women here in my jurisdiction.”
Chatham said after 46 years as a prosecutor, defense attorney and judge: “I find our judicial system is second only to the Holy Bible to bring repentance in this world. I don’t know how many people would repent if they hadn’t been caught.”
One expert witness assessed Nuckolls as a low risk to reoffend if he receives treatment and remains accountable after his release from jail. Another said he thinks Nuckolls “poses a low risk for sexual violence” but a “moderate” risk for video voyeurism.
“It’s analogous to predicting the weather,” testified forensic psychologist Criss Lott, who met with Nuckolls to conduct a risk assessment in September.
“Mr. Nuckolls’ personality traits and intellectual ability, to me, cut both ways,” Lott said. “He’s a very bright guy, and bright guys can deceive us.”
Lott said Nuckolls is “in essence an addict” who will have to struggle with video voyeurism the rest of his life.
Judge Chatham said he “is not willing to take any risk, even a modest risk, on this type of behavior.”
“You were in the ultimate position of trust,” he said. “You used the ministry to serve your own selfish sexual perversion.”
Michael argued that one thing in his client’s favor is acceptance and accountability he would receive from being involved in church. The attorney quoted his own pastor, Steve Howell of First Baptist Church of Southaven, Miss. “Brother Steve says church is designed for the rehabilitation of those who have failed,” Michael said.
Larry Kilgore, pastor of Crowder Baptist Church in Crowder, Miss., where Nuckolls attended before his conviction, told the court that he doesn’t believe the former evangelist’s ministry days are over.
“I think there is great probability that when he is free again the Lord will have some sort of ministry for him,” said Kilgore, who has visited and corresponded with Nuckolls in prison. “It might not be exactly as it was, but it will be productive.”
Kilgore said he didn’t know, as a registered sex offender, if Nuckolls would ever again be allowed to work with youth, but he believes the youth and parents at his church who know him well would receive him.
The pastor said Nuckolls once told him he is glad he was caught. “This was a time when the Lord has gotten his attention,” he recalled the conversation.
“The Lord has taught him a lot of things, and he has ministered to a lot of people,” Kilgore said.
Judge Chatham didn’t dispute Nuckolls’ ministry gifts. “Some of the greatest teaching we have in the Word came from the Apostle Paul when he was in jail,” he said. “So there is some good, I hope, from you.”
Based on the expert testimony about the long-term nature of his disorder, Chatham ordered that upon his release from prison Nuckolls, 35, receive an additional 10 years of treatment and monitoring. Under Mississippi law, he is ineligible for parole and cannot earn points toward a reduced sentence due to the nature of his crime.