FOX13 News has learned that Terrence Thomas, who allegedly strangled his wife and dumped her body in a river, pleaded guilty to a previous crime of child abuse and was sentenced earlier in 2012.
Thomas was apprehended late Thursday evening after Karen Boyd-Thomas' nude body was recovered from the Loosahatchie River. He was charged with first degree murder and false reporting.
Thomas, 33, used a belt to whip his niece in 2010, according to the Shelby County District Attorney's Office. He pleaded guilty but the judge gave him judicial diversion.
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Diversion gives some defendants a special type of probation, allowing them a chance to avoid jail time, after completing the program.
"I think that putting somebody on diversion or probation and having them go out and commit a violent crime is every judge's worst nightmare," said Blake Ballin, a criminal defense attorney.
Ballin isn't representing Terrence Thomas but says diversion is common, and requires no jail time for first time offenders.
"The whole point of it is to make sure people who make minor mistakes, don't have a record for the rest of their lives," said Ballin.
Shelby County Criminal Court Judge Paula Skahan ordered diversion for Terrence Thomas after he used a belt to whip his 14-year-old niece in 2010, according to the District Attorney's office.
Fox13 News has learned he pleaded guilty to misdemeanor child abuse and was sentenced in April 2012 to nearly one year of diversion. But before he completed the program, Terrence confessed to brutally killing his 31-year-old wife.
The defense attorney said those eligible for diversion can't have prior convictions on a felony offense, or certain misdemeanors like DUI. Terrance had at least one previous arrest and other reported accusation for domestic violence, filed by his late wife, according to police reports.
Reporter: "So the fact he'd been arrested before is really a moot point?"
"It is, and it's usually something that's not brought to a judge's attention, because anybody can be arrested for anything, it's convictions that matter," Ballin said.
While the state could oppose diversion, Ballin notes they would need witnesses to testify about the crime. In Thomas' case, his wife declined to prosecute at least once before.
"In the case of Mr. Thomas, Judge Skahan after doing her investigation, she decided parenting and anger management were appropriate for him and looking at facts of case seems like a pretty typical and well thought through decision," said Ballin.
Diversion allows the crime to be erased from public record, after they complete the program. Thomas' diversion period was set to end in February 2013.
"You can't predict with 100 percent certainty how somebody's going to behave in the future," said Ballin.
Ballin added that he typically looks into diversion for his clients who don't have a criminal record but are likely to be convicted.
Judge Skahan is out of town this week and was not able to be reached for comment.