TOPEKA — The Kansas Supreme Court has declined to hear a case involving allegations of sexual misconduct by a dental lab instructor at the state-run women’s prison in Topeka, keeping his criminal record clear.
Tomas Co has denied allegations made by women under his supervision from 2013 to 2018 while overseeing the dental lab at the Topeka Correctional Facility. Last year, an appeals court overturned his conviction for unlawful sexual relations with an inmate, meaning he will face no punishment for unwanted touching and alleged sexual advances.
Sharon Sullivan, a Washburn University professor who has experience working with women survivors of human trafficking and sexual violence, said she was disappointed in the outcome of Co’s case. As the dental lab instructor, Sullivan said, Co held a position of power over women who were afraid of losing their place in a coveted program.
“I think the message is really clear to all of us that that their bodily autonomy and integrity is not valued — that some people are above the law, and that we are not going to protect them from predators,” Sullivan said. “I think that’s really clear.”
Six women testified about their personal experiences with Co at his 2020 trial in Shawnee County District Court. At least a dozen women accused Co of inappropriate behavior.
The women said Co touched their breasts and genitals, tried to kiss them, pressed his genitals against them, gave them intimate hugs and made inappropriate comments. One woman testified that Co on several occasions compelled her to reach into his pants, where he had removed his pockets, and rub his penis until he ejaculated.
Jurors rejected the claims of five women, convicting him on a single charge. The appeals court panel overturned the conviction after determining that touching an inmate’s inner thigh every day with sexual desire and without her consent doesn’t qualify as “lewd.”
Judges Karen Arnold-Burger, G. Gordon Atcheson and Jacy J. Hurst wrote in their ruling that the touching was “inappropriate and unwarranted.” But the touching wasn’t “lewd,” the court said, because it didn’t undermine the inmate’s morals.
Chris Joseph, a Topeka attorney who defended Co, said the Kansas Supreme Court’s decision not to hear the case means the state has no more avenues of appeal.
Sullivan, who volunteered with a creative writing group in the prison before the pandemic, said many women there have experienced sexual abuse. For some, the prison is the safest place they have ever been.
“We have a higher responsibility to be careful with our behavior when we have people who are so vulnerable,” Sullivan said. “Certainly, incarcerated people are vulnerable. They don’t have control over their lives. Other people do. And I would say, historically, women have not been believed when they’ve complained about sexual harassment, sexual violence, both on the inside and outside. And so that in a way is not a surprise.”
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