06/08/1998 at 01:00 AM EDT
The jury deliberated for just three hours before convicting Wayne Cservak, a Dalton, Ga., carpet factory worker, of molesting a 13-year-old boy. But the May 1997 verdict didn't sit right with Juror No. 7. "It was a terrible, overwhelming feeling," says Jim Thomas, 69, who runs a glue company. When a clerk handed him a check for jury service, Thomas threw it on the floor. "This is blood money," he told her. "The clerk just picked it up," he recalls. "She didn't care."
But Thomas did. Haunted by the thought that he had been party to a gross miscarriage of justice, he took a startling step: Thomas hired an attorney to appeal Cservak's case. "It all struck me as a bunch of baloney," he says of the testimony from the boy, the son of Cservak's girlfriend. In the end, a judge threw out the conviction—and Thomas became a local hero. "It's beyond belief that a person would have the conscience and guts to invest his own time and money," says Dalton Mayor Jim Middleton. "It would have been so much easier to forget about the whole thing."
Thomas had already served on three juries when he was picked for Cservak's trial, at which seventh-grader Christopher Cools testified that Cservak, 21, had sexually molested him on repeated occasions while Cools's mother, Loretta Bramlett, 35, slept in a nearby room. Cservak failed a polygraph test, but Thomas was convinced that Cools had concocted the charges to keep his mother from marrying Cservak. "The whole thing just seemed like a setup," says Thomas.
The other six men and five women on the jury bought the story. On the second day of deliberations, the atmosphere in the jury room grew increasingly tense. "The jury foreman implied that I was just some foggy guy who was too old for the jury," says Thomas, who has suffered from hearing loss since serving in the Korean War. (He admits that he had trouble hearing Cservak's soft-spoken attorney but insists he heard all of the evidence presented in court.) "There was also this 25-year-old woman laying into me. 'Were you here?' they'd say. 'Did you hear what was going on?' They were challenging my age, my hearing, my mental process." Finally, he says, he gave in and voted with the majority.
On the day Cservak was sentenced to 10 years without chance of parole—despite Thomas's written plea to the judge for leniency—Thomas asked Dalton lawyer Robert Adams to mount the appeal. Cservak's mother, former cashier Kathie Clark, 44, of Bradenton, Fla., had already mortgaged the family home to pay the $5,000 billed by Cservak's trial lawyer and couldn't afford further legal fees. So Thomas, who lives alone in a rustic mountaintop house outside Dalton, spent some $6,500 to help Cservak successfully appeal his conviction—and was prepared to take out a loan to spend even more.
"Never in a million years could I have imagined myself standing up in support of a convicted child molester, but there I was," he says. Last Dec. 22, Judge "William Boyett voided Cservak's conviction on the grounds that he had been inadequately represented by his attorney. But a new trial was never held: One week later, Cools recanted, saying the molestation allegation was a lie. Cservak, who had already served 10 months in prison, was released. (He now lives in Sarasota, Fla.) He says of the man who voluntarily came to his rescue, "I wish there were more people out there like him."
Thomas says he was just following instincts he had developed growing up in a Catholic family in Elmhurst, Ill., the son of a homemaker and a Chicago civil servant. He attended parochial schools. "That training grounds a young person in morality and decency," he says. "There is a real feeling that I am my brother's keeper." Thomas joined the Navy in 1950, the same year he married childhood friend Enid Savolainen, and later found a job with a California branch of the company that manufactures Elmer's Glue. By 1973 the couple and their two sons had relocated to Greenville, S.C., where Enid died after a freak fall. Thomas remarried twice but neither union lasted.
Since 1985 he has lived near Dalton, where he started All-Purpose Adhesive—which makes glue for installing commercial carpeting—with a partner in 1992. But it is his work on Cservak's behalf that has cemented his good reputation with his neighbors—and as far away as Hollywood. "They talk about getting Paul Newman to play me," Thomas says of the producers who have heard his story and called to inquire. "Can you imagine that? I just did what I considered the right thing to do. Nothing more."
Gail Cameron Wescott in Dalton