Wednesday, April 29, 2009

"Stay Away From Drugs & Stupid Men"

I watched a woman, age 38, who was in trouble with the law for the first time in her life. She stood in the jury box, wearing a blue jail jumpsuit, shackles, and was pleading no contest to numerous felonies that arose from her involvement with a man that got her hooked on drugs. In the four cases, the charges included Robbery with a Deadly Weapon, Grand Theft (3cts), Theft, & Possession of Controlled Substance.

Judge Roger McDonald showed a kindness toward her that one doesn't often witness in court. Too many times, the plea process seems like an 18-wheeler barreling down the road - judges rattle through the questions at a rapid-fire pace, public defenders having had only a few moments to talk with their clients that morning, and "new" defendants sometimes bewildered by it all. This lady scored a minimum sentence of 52.5 months in the Department of Corrections for her crimes. Judge McDonald took several minutes to explain why sentencing guidelines were implemented in Florida and why he rarely varies from them. He encouraged her to take advantage of the substance abuse programs and other counseling that would be available to her in prison. And he told her he hopes she "stays away from drugs and stupid men."

I hope she does too.

Saturday, April 25, 2009

Misdemeanor DV Court Gets "It"

In 2007, Orange County implemented at specialized misdemeanor domestic violence division. Court personnel received training about the dynamics of DV as well as knowing what the Statute requires. Judge Jerry Brewer presided over this division until Dec 2008 (except for 4 months in 2008 when budget cuts caused it to shut down). He did a phenomenal job of running this division and CourtWatch was disappointed when he was reassigned to traffic court in January.

Because of their specialized training, the prosecutors and judge in this division routinely include BIP (the 26 week Batterer's Intervention Program) in their plea agreements and sentencings. I spent a lot of time in Judge Brewer's courtroom in the early months of my courtwatching career and learned a great deal from him.

Once I began to monitor the felony courts more often, I was astonished to see the prosecutors and judges rarely, if ever, order BIP for domestic violence offenders - either in their plea agreements or when they'd been adjudicated by a jury. I can only assume that because their divisions handle a wide variety of offenses, that they didn't know that the Statute says:
  • if a defendant pleads guilty or no contest to a crime of domestic violence, even if adjudication is withheld, Florida Statute requires they be receive 1 year's probation and be ordered into BIP - if the Court finds BIP is not appropriate (which would be the case in non-intimate partner violence), it must state on the record why it is not

  • if a defendant is adjudicated guilty of a crime of domestic violence and they've intentionally caused bodily harm to the victim, they must be sentenced to a minimum of 5 days in jail

Last fall we presented our concerns to Chief Judge Belvin Perry about our findings that sentencings in felony divisions were not in accordance with statutory requirements. After researching the Statute, he agreed and issued a memorandum to the judges to make them aware of what the law requires. This memorandum was sent by CourtWatch to Lawson Lamar, the State Attorney for the Ninth Judicial Circuit (Orange/Osceola) in February.

In State v. Steven Piantieri 2008CF16896 (about which we previously blogged), the defendant was charged with felony battery and pled to misdemeanor battery on 3/31/09. He was ordered to complete 1 year of probation; have no contact with the victim (yet he was ordered to write her an apology letter!); 1 day jail with credit for time served (where is our 5-day jail term?); complete 35 hours of community service; continue with anger management counseling on a weekly basis with his existing counselor and provide proof to his attorney.

Orange County Probation's specialized DV unit asked for a hearing this week to clarify the sentence because there is no such program as Domestic Violence Anger Management. You can order either Anger Management or BIP (which is geared toward counseling batterers about issues of power and control - not anger). The victim definately wanted BIP ordered. The judge was inclined to agree. HOWEVER, the Assistant State Attorney handling the case, Diane Murphy, said that anger management was acceptable. BIP was not ordered for Mr. Piantieri.

For CourtWatch, and for the victim, this is unacceptable! We need the State Attorney and his Assistants to do their best to enforce the law. That is what we as citizens should expect from our prosecutors.

Thursday, April 23, 2009

Welcome Back Judge Wattles

CourtWatch is pleased to have Judge Bob Wattles back on the bench after a several month departure for chemotherapy. He does something that I've not seen other judges do in trials - he allows jurors to submit questions (in writing) for a witness to answer before they're excused from the stand. When a question is submitted, the attorneys and the judge confer to determine its legality. If it is, the question is posed.

What a great idea! Sometimes, when the attorneys know their case thouroughly, a question to elicit testimony about a foundational fact may have been overlooked. They just assume that everyone knows this piece of information. On the flip side, in these days of budget cuts, it might be that the attorneys are so swamped with cases, they don't know the facts and therefore don't think to ask the question. In either case, it enhances the trial to allow jurors this privilege.

Jurors only know the case they're deciding. And they want to know all the details so they can render a proper verdict. Being permitted to pose questions also has the benefit of keeping them more engaged in the trial (I saw one juror falling asleep in another courtroom earlier this week - he was replaced with an alternate).

Kudos to Judge Wattles for engaging his jurors in this manner. And welcome back!

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Injunction Dysfunction

I spent about 2 hours monitoring 4 injunction hearings in Judge Sally Kest's courtroom this morning. Typically, when an Injunction (also known as an Order for Protection or a Restraining Order) is granted, the Respondent is not permitted to contact the Petitioner at all. "No contact" means no emails, phone calls, texts or even messages relayed by a third party (unless one is designated by the Court to handle communications with respect to any children). However, when children are involved, parents often need to communicate with each other about visits, emergencies, etc. In most cases, another family member's home or the child's school/daycare can serve as the drop off and pick up point for the child so mom & dad don't have to see one another. And in most cases, this is a satisfactory solution for the parents.

Injunctions provide that the Respondent is not permitted to come within 500' of the Petitioner's residence or other prohibited place (e.g., Petitioner's place of employment). Nor is the Respondent allowed to come within 100' of the Petitioner's car (I'm not sure why the Statute doesn't say the Petitioner instead of their vehicle, but I digress).....

Only one case (the first one) involved a couple that had been married. The other three had children together. No paternity actions had been filed (see blog entitled "Paternity 101").

Case #1 [6 month injunction granted]: The parties were divorced some time ago. Petitioner (dad) had a cast on his hand as a result of his having punched a kitchen cabinet while on the phone with the Respondent. The Respondent (mom) admitted to having later touched the Petitioner first - sparking the violence that was the subject of this case. In her ruling, Judge Kest initially said that pick up & drop off for the children (ages 6, 12 & 17) at each others' houses was permitted. She then said the school would be the location, but that when school is closed, they could go to each other's homes. The Respondent (mom) then advised the judge that the younger children were already enrolled in a summer camp daycare program. In what appeared to be an effort to wrap up the hearing as quickly as possible, Judge Kest neglected to verbally indicate the camp as the pick up / drop off location during the summer and she failed to tell the parties the length of the injunction (although this is found in the paperwork each one receives).

Case #2 [12 month injunction granted]: The Petitioner alleged that her child's father, in addition to being violent, has alcohol problems and has driven their child while intoxicated. She requested supervised visitation and was denied. The judge prohibited both parties from consuming alcohol while caring for the child, and stated that if they were using a babysitter for 5+ hours while they were the custodial parent, the other parent was to take the child. Additionally, Judge Kest ordered "no hostile contact" for school events. She ordered the Petitioner to contact dad to advise him of any doctor appointments so that he would have the option to attend. This was ordered to be a "no hostile" scenario as well. She permitted email communication between the parties. In what was a gross oversight, there was testimony that this Respondent had a previous 1-yr injunction against him by the same Petitioner and allegedly violated it before it expired last year. Judge Kest failed to order him into Batterers' Intervention Program (BIP) as required by Florida Statute.

Case #3 [3-yr injunction granted]: The Respondent failed to appear for this hearing. The Petitioner advised the judge that the Respondent had served time in prison several years ago for an assault where she was the victim. The judge told her it was foolish of her to try to go back to him when he was released (in spite of the Petitioner's agreement with this assement, we belive that blaming the Petitioner under these circumstances was inappropriate). The Petitioner also advised that her child's father engaged in several power & control tactics with the child - taking away toys and blaming mom, verbally & emotionally abusing the child, verbally abusing mom in front of the child, etc. Judge Kest recommended the Petitioner seek counseling for herself to understand why she makes the decisions she's making (still appearing to blame the victim). She failed to order BIP in this case as well. It is also within the realm of the judges to order drug and/or alcohol evaluation/treatment. The Respondent's record includes numerous drug charges and assault offenses (12 cases in Orange County dating to 1998 when he turned 18). There was no testimony about the Respondent's drug convictions, nor did the judge inquire about his history.

Judge Kest did order supervised visitation through Family Ties but left the mother in tears because she is still terrified for the safety of her child. Unfortunately, this specimen of fatherhood, who didn't bother to come to court today, still has parental rights unless terminated by court order. No explanation of how the Family Ties program works was provided.
Case #4 [4 month injunction granted]: This was a case of apparent "mutual assault." The Respondent (mom) admitted to first grabbing the Petitioner in an attempt to get him to talk to her as he walked up some stairs with his back to her. He confirmed that he ripped her shirt off and tore off a necklace she was wearing. From the testimony I heard, it appeared to me that the Petitioner was the aggressor. Judge Kest would not accept police reports as evidence because they are considered hearsay. However, we believe that a law enforcement officer's observations about the parties' demeanor should be reviewed if available. This information would be found in a police report. Once again, the judge allowed "no hostile" contact when exchanging the child - asserting that mom and dad will have to have contact even though the paternal grandparents' home was designated as the exchange location. To imply that mom and dad will be required to come into contact with one another is to invite additional hostilities and create confusion about how to enforce the court order.

In all cases, no explanation of what "no contact" entails was attempted by the Court. In spite of the fact that both parties receive a copy of the court order, an explanation of the terms and conditions is critical. DV perpetrators and their victims often misunderstand the paperwork they're given - sometimes interpreting through their own biases. Harbor House advocates are available to explain the process and the rulings to petitioners. The repondents are on their own to figure it out.

Finally, I'll say it one more time, "no hostile contact" is not an enforceable ruling in cases where one person abuses their partner by perpetrating power and control over them. A certain glance, or a veiled threat that only the victim understands, would not be viewed as "hostile" by anyone outside of the relationship. Shouldn't the parent who is violent with his/her family be the one to have to abdicate their "right" to attend the school play while an injunction is in effect?

Thursday, April 16, 2009

Paternity 101

There are countless cases in our court system that involve disputes between two people who have a child together but were never married. Most of the time, the children are very young preschoolers or infants who often witness arguments and/or violence between their parents when being "exchanged" for a visit. Issues of child support (or its absence) and visitation can become explosive when Mom & Dad can no longer agree on money or weekends. Add in to this mix the new boyfriend/husband or girlfriend/wife who resents or dislikes their new partner's ex and it's only a matter of time before things heat up and people are getting arrested for assault or coming to the courthouse to file an injunction.

Married people have a mechanism to deal with these issues. It's called a dissolution or divorce case. Unmarrieds also have a mechanism where the Court has jurisdiction to resolve these matters. It's called a paternity action and it can be done without an attorney. It benefits fathers because it gives them legal rights to be involved in visitation & decisions relating to their child (school, medical, etc). It benefits mothers, who typically have primary responsibility for the child, to receive financial support from the father. And it benefits the community because it provides a case for the Court to have jurisdiction to resolve disputes - instead of someone ending up in jail when they try to resolve a dispute with violence. Most of all, it benefits the child, who will (hopefully) be spared the trauma of seeing Mom and Dad verbally and/or physically assaulting each other.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Children's Campaign

Please consider contacting your legislator about the issues detailed in the following SOS from the Children's Campaign, particularly the funding for Guardians Ad Litem (GAL) program and the Juvenile Assessment Centers:

Officials with whom I've spoken agree that our juvenile justice system is "a joke." Even though CourtWatch does not monitor the juvenile courts, we often see youthful offenders pleading guilty to armed robbery, assaults, and other crimes in felony court. Please tell your legislator that the courts need to be adequately funded to hold all perpetrators, juvenile and adult, accountable for their crimes.

Monday, April 13, 2009

Blame a Victim for Her Own Murder?

Last week I monitored a portion of State v. Laurent Dorivert (2006-CF-17670-O) in Orange County. Dorivert was accused of murdering his wife, Marie, by beating her with a yard tool. Marie's death received no press at the time. Only a brief note in the Sentinel when her husband was indicted for the crime. Dorivert was a pastor.

Unfortunately, I didn't have the opportunity to watch the entire trial. I did, however, listen to significant portions of the interrogation that the defendant was subjected to by law enforcement. I don't know the names of the detectives, but I was greatly distressed by what I heard. Dorivert was repeatedly subjected to two detectives yelling at him that he wasn't telling the truth, badgering him and arguing with him about what he had told them. I suppose that's all par for the course, especially when you have testimony of other witnesses that contradicts what the suspect is telling you.

What really distressed me was the attacks they made on Marie. Trying to "buddy up" to him to get him to confide in them - telling him that it's understandable that sometimes people do bad things when they're upset. They repeatedly asked him questions like "What did your wife do to you to cause you to do this [murder]? . . . She must have done something pretty bad to make you do this. . . Maybe she cheated on you? . . . What about her breaking her vow to you and to God by divorcing you?. . . Did she tell you she was leaving you and taking your daughter back to Haiti?" and so on.

After listening to nearly 90 minutes of this interrogation, I could see by their body language that the jurors had had their fill of it. The badgering of the defendant made me feel sorry for him. I didn't hear all the evidence against him during my time in the courtroom. It was obviously enough to convict, because that's exactly what the jury did. He is scheduled to be sentenced next month to life in prison.

But my heart went out to Marie, first and foremost, because it seemed as though she was being somehow blamed for her own death. I wonder if the jury, hearing the detectives' repeated assaults on her character, might have struggled with the issue of whether or not she was somehow "responsible" for the assault. Sadly, this is a tactic that many defense attorneys use in domestic violence cases - blaming the victim for the decisions made by her attacker.

Friday, April 10, 2009

Attempted Murderer Found

WFTV reports that Michael Stalling was re-arrested yesterday. We will closely monitor his case to see what Judge Adams does next.

Thursday, April 9, 2009

Attempted Murderer on the Run

Imagine my surprise when I tuned in to WFTV yesterday morning and saw the report on Michael Stalling's flight from justice. He was originally charged with Attempted 1st Degree Murder, and was allowed to plead to the lesser charge of Aggravated Battery (Great Bodily Harm) on March 23, 2009. He was supposed to be in court on Tuesday for sentencing.

Four things concern me:
1. That he was offered the opportunity to plead to a lesser charge after he (allegedly) stood up from a couch while watching TV, jumped on top of his wife, and stabbed her 7 times.
2. The fact that Judge John Adams allowed Stalling out of jail while awaiting sentencing in order to visit his sick mother. Putting a GPS device on someone who is facing a lengthy sentence (his criminal record is extensive) is not going to assure his return to court.
3. The fact that WFTV didn't mention the judge's name in their reporting of this incident.
4. The fact that only one news agency reported his flight. Everyone seems to be too busy covering the fact that there are depositions being taken in the Casey Anthony case this week. Stalling's face ought to be posted everyone so he can be found and locked up and so his victim can have peace.

The Sentinel Responds

Little JP got some attention:

His father, Gregory Tillman, was sentenced to life in prison yesterday for killing his 6 month old son. I guess he thought he could do better than the State's offer of a 25-yr sentence for a plea. Thankfully, the jury told him otherwise. Robin Wilkinson, the prosecutor in this case, advises that no offer was made to Tillman. I stand corrected. I confused this case with Michael Alan Barker, convicted of killing 1-yr old Amber Shevalier. Barker was sentenced to 25 years.

I understand the need for plea agreements, particularly since the System is incredibly overburdened with cases. But after knowing as much as I now do about the circumstances surrounding JP's death, I wonder why an offer was made at all. It angers me that our legislature won't adequately fund the court system to the degree that the State could devote its energies to more prosecutions and fewer plea agreements. Perhaps if the citizens would express outrage at wasteful spending, and would pressure their legislators to spend OUR money on public safety (not just police officers, but also prosecutors, victim adovcates, support staff, etc.), our judicial system would do a better job of holding perpetrators accountable for their crimes.

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Little J.P. Deserves Some Attention

On February 2, 2008 6-month old Jean Pierre Tillman (called J.P. by his family) was murdered by his 22-yr old father Gregory Tillman. The baby's parents had an argument earlier in the morning in which mom was assaulted by dad. She left J.P. in the care of his father when she went out to the flea market. The defendant called her and told her that if she didn't come home, he was going to send J.P. to the hospital. Jury selection, opening arguments and testimony by J.P.'s mother and aunt occurred yesterday.

This morning we heard from law enforcement and the medical examiner. Tillman claimed at the time that he and the baby were in the shower and he accidentally dropped him. Testimony revealed that there was a heartbeat, but no brain function. J.P.'s left leg and skull were fractured. There were approximately 10 blows to his head. The cause of death was a combination of the blows and drowning. There was additional evidence presented of an old burn injury near J.P.'s anus for which no medical treatment was sought because DCF would then be notified.

Yesterday during jury selection CourtWatch notified the Sentinel and the Newsdesks at all the TV stations in Orlando of this case. Yet nobody is here today. Everyone seems to be slogging through more Casey Anthony discovery material. Caylee's death is tragic - no doubt about it. But so is little J.P.'s death. This case doesn't have the drama that the Anthony family has provided. But it has a grieving mom who could use the support of the community. Why, in spite of our efforts to alert them to this case, has the media not cared to cover the trial? Could it be because the victim wasn't a cute little white toddler and was black/hispanic instead? Does that make J.P.'s life less valuable than Caylee's? Or are we more interested in cases where mom is the perpetrator instead of dad?

Kudos to the prosecutor, Robin Wilkinson and the victim advocate (whose name I don't know yet), for the job they're doing. Thank you for caring.

Monday, April 6, 2009

Attempted Murder Bond Hearing

I monitored Judge LeBlanc's handling of a bond motion in State v. Edwin Flores (2009CF3163) and was impressed with his concern for the victim's safety in this matter. The defendant and his girlfriend were engaged in a dispute when the victim attempted to intervene and asked them to leave her property. The defendant allegedly stabbed her intentionally.

Flores was granted a bond of $100k by the I/A (initial appearance) judge. The victim testified that she has received a number of threatening phone calls from an unknown female since Flores' arrest. Assistant State's Attorney Kashi did a good job arguing for the bond to not be reduced and cited the fact that the defendant has been arrested nearly a dozen times over the past ten years in Orange, Osceola and Seminole Counties for drug, assault, traffic, burglary and robbery charges, most of which were ultimately dropped.

I hope a thorough investigation of the threatening calls is done so that the victim can be safe.

Thursday, April 2, 2009

More Pavao family members get bond

Shastine Pavao (daughter) was granted bond in the amount of $31K. She posted it yesterday. Debra Pavao (wife) also posted a $25k bond yesterday. For background on this case, see our blog dated March 26th.

4/4/09 added info: Our volunteer who monitored the case advised that Debra had no idea how many properties she owned. Nor did she have any idea how her "small" children (ages 12 & 15) were being fed. Co-defendant Shastine (age 22) owns approximately 17 properties & she believed all were in foreclosure. Her 15-yr old sister has been collecting rent on two properties (now in foreclosure) from people who were "renting to own." Appalling. That's the only word that is suitable to express our outrage at what these people are doing.

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Kudos to Judge Roger McDonald

CourtWatch monitored the plea & sentencing yesterday of Steven Joseph Piantieri, who was charged with Felony Battery (3rd Degree) which has a maximum possible penalty of 5 years in prison. The defendant pled to a lesser charge of simple battery and received 1 year probation, was ordered to have no contact with the victim, have mental health counseling and attend an anger management class (more about that later).

Our volunteer in the courtroom was impressed with the extreme care that Judge McDonald showed the victim and with the fact that he refused to withhold adjudication after she requested his record not be able to be sealed or expunged (despite his attorney's argument that a conviction could hurt his client from renewing his business license). He also, after learning that the victim had not requested restitution for medical bills and counseling, encouraged her to request compensation to cover these costs.

With respect to anger management class, CourtWatch believes that the plea offer should have insisted upon Batterer's Intervention Program (a 26-week class that counsels batterers about power & control issues) instead of the 8-hour anger management class. Florida Statute requires BIP in these types of cases. This was the responsibility of Assistant State Attorney Murphy to enforce. The judge should have asked why the agreement didn't specify BIP instead of anger management. Florida Statute also requires 5 days in jail when someone is adjudicated guilty of a crime of domestic violence. This is also the responsibility of the Assistant State Attorney to treat as non-negotiable. (see Florida Statute 741.281 and 741.283)

All in all, however, our volunteer was pleased with Judge McDonald's demeanor toward the victim. And we hope to see the State Attorney's Office be more vigorous in holding perpetrators of domestic violence accountable for their actions when negotiating plea agreements.