Monday, June 29, 2009

Men Need to Speak Out Against Sexual Violence

State v. Edwin Antonio-Rafael Cintron Bond Motion (held Friday, 6/26/09)

Initially the defense was asking for a bond of $5000 and for Mr. Cintron to stay at his grandmother’s house.

Assistant State Attorney Natalie Stratis asked for “a bond of more substance” (when asked for a specific amount, she left that up to Judge Wallis to determine), electronic monitoring and/or home confinement, and relinquishing of his passport.

What the judge granted
  • Bond in the amount of $15,000.
  • Electronic monitoring - he may not leave Orange County.
  • Must relinquish his passport to the court.
  • No direct or indirect contact order with any/all of the victims and there families.

CourtWatch's observations

  • None of the child victims were in court today.
  • Unlike the news reported on Channel 9, Ms. Stratis made it clear that the State understood that Mr. Cintron's charges were eligible for bond, she was not debating that, it was the amount of bond that was in question.
  • The mothers of the victims felt confident that money wasn’t as scarce as it was being made out to be.
  • The mothers of the victims believed that he was a flight risk.
  • The mothers of the victims expressed that the victims fear retaliation.
  • The mothers of the victims were concerned about the close proximity of where he lives verses some of the victims.

CourtWatch believes that Judge Wallis heard their concerns and met their needs for this particular case at this particular time. It was clear that this case was just for one person, one victim, there are still more cases to come, more bond hearings to be held, this is just the beginning.

It was powerful to see the mothers bonding together, wanting to protect their children, to keep them safe from harm.

What was painful was to watch the mother and grandmother of Mr. Cintron. Before the hearing started, they sat behind the cameraman, then they literally hid crouched down on the floor behind the benches to hide from the camera, the deputy quickly confronted them and they said they didn’t want to be on camera because they own a business and they didn’t want to be filmed. The officer informed them that the courtroom is a public area, and they can’t be hiding on the floor behind the bench. So, her concern is her business? She is concerned about what he son does and how it affects her business? She hides he face in shame? Mr. Cintron has thus far admitted to what he has been accused of doing. He told the truth… that is a good thing. There is so much pain and suffering that the victims will not have to endure because he is telling the truth. The victims do not have to convince anyone. The truth is being told. Healing can begin for the victims and justice can be reached. Yet she hides her face because she is ashamed. Her son did something bad, but he has told the truth.

Still one must wonder who is most important, is it the 18 year old son who has admitted to the truth (note - he has previously been arrested two times before, one time being domestic violence), or his mother who covered her face because she was ashamed and didn’t want her business associates to see her on the news, or a grandmother who hid on the floor because she was ashamed, yet has volunteered to take in her grandson, or the 13 year old sister who is being, well, who knows…?

I think what concerns me the most (at least as it relates to the defendant's family) is the thirteen year old sister of Mr. Cintron. Does she feel responsible or guilty for allowing this to happen to her friends? Are others blaming her for her brother's actions, or does she seem to think this in her mind? Has she been a victim of incest? And if so, does she understand that the effects of incest are different for her from what her brother has done to her friends? If her mother is so ashamed of the entire situation, she might not understand that her daughter did nothing wrong. She should be able talk about it if she wants too. The Victim Service Center in Orange County offers counseling support to victims of sexual assualt. CourtWatch hopes that all the victims seek assistance as a step in their healing process.

Finally, I wonder, where are the fathers of these girls? There were two men there, but they stayed away from the women, they remained quiet. Sexual assault is a big deal. If these men were the victims' fathers, they missed an opportunity to speak to other men about stopping this type of crime. The TV camera was there. I hope next time the opportunity presents itself one or more of the men affected by this crime will step forward to speak.

For WFTV's report on this case, go to

Saturday, June 27, 2009

Defendant Ignored by His Attorney

CourtWatch's goal is to be impartial in our assessment of the justice system. Today, we want to call attention to a case where a defendant's attorney, Octavio Andrade, left his client hanging outside a courtroom without notifying him that his court hearing, a Motion to Modify Conditions of Bond, had been cancelled.

In the words of one of our volunteers:

I went to Judge Rand Wallis' courtroom today (6/26) to watch the Edwin Cintron case (scheduled for 2:00pm). I arrived at the courtroom at 1:20pm, and the door was locked. I noticed that a young man was sitting with his friend (or relative) near the courtroom door. When it was 1:35 the young man asked if I had a list for the courtroom. I informed him that on my list I was showing a 1:30 hearing for an Abraham Zamora. He took a deep breath, and said, “That’s me, I was worried that I was in the wrong place” he explained that his attorney hadn’t showed up and of course, the door was still locked. I told him that there was also another case scheduled for 2:00, and it would probably include the media and news crews. He looked a little puzzled, said "oh, okay,” checked his cell phone and quietly waited.

At 1:40 someone for the 2:00 hearing showed up and asked if that was the correct courtroom. I confirmed that it was. At 1:45 a cameraman from channel 9 arrived. Abraham stared almost in disbelief. The judge’s trial clerk walked up to the courtroom, used a key on the door, and walked in. The cameraman then tried to enter the room but the door was locked, so he knocked. A deputy answered, and the cameraman asked if he could come in and set up. Abraham walked up to the officer, with a look of fear on his face, and simply couldn’t talk. I could feel his fear at that moment. So I asked, “He is here for the 1:30 bond hearing, is that still happening?" The officer said, “Oh, no that was cancelled… well, let me double check on it, wait here.” The young man believed that this meant he would have to go to jail because he missed a court date. The deputy came back about a minute later and informed him that it was cancelled, there weren’t any other notes, he then asked him what his relationship was to the case. Abraham identified himself and asked what he should do next. He was informed that he should contact his attorney and ask him. He did thank me for telling him about the media and news crew showing up.

I made a point to be there to watch this case because it was still “active” and on my print out from this morning. Mr. Zamora made it a point to be there. He knew about this court date. He arrived early. He was well groomed and appropriately dressed. At no time did he show any anger or frustration.

When did this change? Why was defendant not informed? He had a cell phone. He checked it at least twice. When we sit in the courtroom and listen to people being told over and over again that they are to stay in constant contact with their attorneys, and then their attorney seem to be unreachable, what message is really getting across? Further, in this particular case, this young man had hired a private attorney, which is what makes this all the more frustrating - he is paying for someone to ignore him.

The rest of the story:
In researching this case on the Clerk's website, CourtWatch discovered that there was a notation of "No Information Filed" on this date. In other words, the case was dismissed.

CourtWatch's suggestion:
If there's something scheduled on the docket, the door to the courtroom ought to be unlocked so that anyone showing up for a hearing can get inside. The deputies do an excellent job of providing information when needed, but if they don't know someone is waiting outside for a hearing, how can they inform them when there's been a change in schedule?

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Crisis: Economics and Domestic Violence

The Allstate Foundation just released a national poll that found Americans link the term "economic abuse" to negative Wall Street forecasts or irresponsible spending, rather than domestic violence. The aim of the poll was to underscore the need for education around economic abuse and foster a greater understanding of the challenges facing domestic violence survivors.

The Allstate Foundation 2009 National Poll, "Crisis: Economics and Domestic Violence," serves as a resource in our efforts to help assist survivors and combat domestic violence. The full survey findings are available at

Additional key poll findings include:

  • More than three-quarters of Americans (76 percent) believe the poor economy has made it more difficult for victims of domestic violence, and two-thirds (66 percent) believe it has caused an increase in domestic violence.
  • 44 percent say the most difficult barrier to leaving an abusive relationship is financial security.
  • Almost 60 percent of Americans don't see a connection between harassing a partner at work and economic abuse, even if it may cost the victim their job and ultimately limiting income.

While the poll's statistics are disheartening, The Allstate Foundation is working on helping those directly impacted by economic abuse. The Allstate Foundation, in partnership with the National Network to End Domestic Violence, recently launched a redesigned Economic Empowerment Curriculum.

The curriculum includes financial tools and information designed to enable survivors of domestic abuse to fully understand their financial circumstances, as well as engage in short-term and long-term planning (e.g., budgeting tools, step-by-step planners, tips, etc.) to accomplish their personal goals. The curriculum is available by request on, and will soon be available for electronic download along with e-learning modules.

Saturday, June 20, 2009

Custody Case Resources for Protective Parents

I receive a number of heartbreaking calls from parents who are trying to protect their children from an abusive ex-spouse or partner in divorce/custody cases. Sometimes there are allegations of sexual assault or physical assault. Most of the time I hear stories of the non-custodial parent verbally and emotionally abusing the child. Occasionally the judge completely disregards psych evaluations or the recommendations of the Guardian Ad Litem and orders unsupervised visitation. Sometimes they order visitation even when the parent is known to be an abuser of alcohol and/or drugs.

To top it all off, sometimes the judge verbally abuses the protective parent for trying to keep the child safe.

A Seminole County judge allowed an abusive father to pick up his child from school in spite of a previous court order that granted the mother sole custody. This was done without the mother's knowledge. The father managed to take the child out of the country using a foreign passport. In spite of the fact that the child is an American citizen, the judge abdicated his jurisdiction to a court order from a foreign country. The judge, after the fact, never admitted his error and said there was nothing he could do. Given the increasing immigrant nature of our community, all domestic relations judges need some training to know what to do when presented with court orders from another country.

One judge in Orange County routinely tells mothers who plead for their child to have supervised visits with an unsuitable father "you should have thought about that before you chose him to be the father of your child."

Somewhere along the way, in the overwhelming caseloads they handle, I think some judges have lost some of their humanity. I understand the need to maintain a level of detachment when hearing a case. But does being detached equate with lacking compassion? I wish they could see things from this side of the bench and realize that the decisions they make will have an impact on the lives of real people and their children for the rest of their lives.

I've had several people tell me that they sometimes see a change in the judge's demeanor when they retain a new attorney. They've felt that their previous attorney was more worried about not getting on a judge's "bad side" than vigorously advocating for their client. I want to encourage anyone who finds themselves in this predicament to candidly discuss your concerns with your attorney. Put them on notice that you will take your business elsewhere if they're unable or unwilling to stand up for you in court. Remember, they work for you! You are not obligated to stick with the same attorney until your child becomes an adult and their services are no longer needed. Sadly, too many protective parents don't have the financial resources to hire an attorney.

At this time, CourtWatch does not have the resources to monitor these cases. But Lundy Bancroft, author of several books, offers some strategies (including establishing an informal courtwatch program with other protective parents) that may be of assistance. Please check out his website and blog for more information.

Friday, June 19, 2009

DC Sniper, cont.

One point that Ms. Muhammad drove home several times was that victims (male or female) often have no physical scars, and that law enforcement and the courts need to understand that fact. She also emphasized the need for victims, particularly those who don't experience a physical injury, to document everything (especially threats to kill, threats of suicide). Victims often need to file police reports and help law enforcement build a case that is sufficient to take to court. If someone else witnesses an assault (physical or verbal), or the abuser's behavior (e.g., banging on the victim's door at 3:00am, damaging property, etc.), the victim needs to provide that information to the LEO (law enforcement officer) and ask them to have the witness provide a written statement.

She also stressed the importance of being supportive when a victim discloses abuse. This applies to everyone, not just law enforcement officers. Ms. Muhammad shared that prior to their separation, she sought her brother's help after John threatened to kill her. Her brother minimized her concerns ("He didn't really say that, did he?") and she never went to him again for assistance. For law enforcement officers and front-line members of the System that deal with victims, their demeanor is crucial at these moments. Victims assess the level of concern shown by those they come into contact with, and their level of cooperation with prosecuting the offender is closely tied to the response that receive - particularly that first response. They are sizing you up, determining whether or not you're trustworthy.

A victim's demeanor after an assault doesn't fit into a nice, clean category. Some victims are terrified and shaking like a leaf. Some are hysterical and crying. Some are resigned and don't seem to care what happens. Some are belligerent with the person that's trying to help them. Anyone working with victims needs to toss out their preconceived notions of how the victim ought to behave, either in the immediate aftermath of an assault or in court. Because if they don't act the way we think they should act, we doubt the veracity of their allegations. If the perpetrator is calm, cool, and collected, they're considered more "believable" than the victim. Additionally, too many strangulation victims who fight back are arrested because they may have scratched their abuser and there are no marks on the victim.

Ultimately, Ms. Muhammad likened the situation for victims to fighting a war. She encourages them to not allow anyone to make them feel like it's their fault that they're a victim. Nobody volunteers to be a victim!

As a side note, one Orange County judge recently told a mother that "well, you married him!" when trying to convince the judge to protect her child from unsupervised visits with the father. This sort of remark, not to mention this sort of attitude, is unconscionable coming from a judge.

Thursday, June 18, 2009

DC Sniper's Rampage Was DV-Related

I want to thank the Orlando Police Department for allowing me to attend their DV Training yesterday. The keynote speaker was Mildred Muhammad, ex-wife of DC Sniper John Allen Muhammad. After the Trauma is a non-profit organization she founded to help survivors of domestic violence re-establish their lives. She captivated the audience of over 100 law enforcement personnel and domestic violence advocates with her story of survival.

Muhammad's presentation cannot possibly be fully recounted in this forum. However, several things stood out to me. First of all, her husband was adversely changed by his service in the military. When he returned from Desert Storm, his personality was different. The military offers counseling to its soldiers. However, there is great reluctance to access these services because servicemen and women, especially those who aspire to a career in the military, don't want a blemish on their record. John did not get the counseling he needed after Desert Storm.

She spoke about how he used their three children to punish her for seeking a divorce. He abducted their children when they lived in Washington State and she did not see them for 18 months. She shared a number of shortcomings in "The System" and with friends/family that she had to overcome. She was finally reunited with her children because John filed for food stamps and had to use the childrens' real names to get them. Once their names were put into the database, they were flagged as having been abducted. She had left her contact information with the local shelter which was notified when the names were used. After an emergency custody hearing in October 2001, she was awarded sole custody and moved them to Maryland where she had relocated. She was permitted to remove them from that Court's jurisdiction because she was fleeing domestic violence. John was not awarded any visitation because he did not have a proper motion filed. The children had no idea that they had been kidnapped because their father told them that their mother was coming to see them, which of course, she never did. It took a long time for Mildred to convince them how desperately she tried to find them before the rift between them was healed.

In February 2002, a friend's niece was killed by John's 17-yr old partner / surrogate son Lee Boyd Malvo. It was later determined that Mildred's friend was the intended target.

The actual "Beltway Shootings" occurred in October 2002. Ten people lost their lives and three others were wounded. John's intent was for his ex-wife to be one of the victims (thereby avoiding suspicion about him as a possible suspect). His plan was to regain custody of their children after her death, collect her life insurance, and move to Canada after staging Lee Malvo's suicide. Malvo would be framed as the lone gunman.

An interesting story about Malvo is that while he was traveling with John, he became interested in the daughter of a friend. When their visit ended, Lee gave the girl a letter, which she did not open. Once Muhammad was named as the DC Sniper, she opened the letter from Lee. It contained a plea for help and said that John was going to kill him if he (Malvo) didn't obey him.
More to follow....

Monday, June 15, 2009

Grieving the Wood Family Murder-Suicide

I spoke with a friend this afternoon who knew the victims in this horrible tragedy. Her children were friends with 12-yr old Aubrey and 10-yr old Dillon. She asked me what she should tell her own children about what had happened to their friends. I counseled her to do what someone else counseled me to do the day my daughter Sarah was killed and I had to tell my other daughter, Katelyn (who was 8 at the time). In spite of the shock that took days to wear off, I managed to function enough to follow their advice. Here's some of what I learned:
  1. BE HONEST! Children know when you're lying to them.
  2. Don't volunteer any information that they don't ask for (I later realized that this is exactly what the Sheriff's detective did with me). I didn't learn the details of Sarah's death until I read about them in the Sentinel the next morning. When in shock, the mind can only handle so much. It takes time to process what you've heard and then to be ready to hear more. So briefly tell them what happened and let them ask questions.
  3. If you don't know the answer to their question, tell them you don't know. It's OK to say "We may never know why their father did this." Don't fabricate an answer or assume that you know the reasons why it happened. In their eyes, you speak with authority and what you say is the truth.
  4. Don't blame God for what happened by saying things like "It was their time" or "God needed them in heaven." The thing that stood out most for me at Sarah's funeral was our pastor saying that God did not take Sarah, but that we could rest assured that he most certainly has received her.
  5. Allow them to go to the funeral if they want to do so. Don't force them to go if they don't want to, and don't underestimate their need to say goodbye to their friend, either at the visitation or the funeral. When we had Sarah's visitation, Katelyn raced to the side of casket to see her and talk to her. It took me close to 30 minutes (maybe it wasn't that long, but it felt like it) before I could come closer than 20 feet away.
  6. Don't tell them their friend or loved one is "sleeping." Depending upon the child's age, they'll be afraid to go to sleep or let you sleep.
  7. Encourage them to write a letter to their friend to send to their friend's family and tell them how much the person meant to them. Have them include favorite memories or draw a picture. Share any photos you have. Even though Sarah was only 2 years old, I sought out people who knew her and I drank in every memory of her that they shared with me. It helped to know that they loved and missed her too.
  8. Send flowers/cards or make a donation in the name of the deceased to a charity of the family's choosing. Include your child's name on the card. Allow them to contribute to the gift if they can.
  9. If the child lost an immediate family member, please consider New Hope's Center for Grieving Children. This incredible organization opened just a month before we needed their services. I don't think Katelyn & I would have coped with our loss had we not had this safe place to talk about what we were experiencing.

If you're a parent, it is critical that you help your child sort through the wide range of emotions they will feel when they've lost a friend or loved one. There will undoubtedly be anger, sadness, and fear, to name a few. If your child has a counselor, tell them what has happened so they can walk your child through the stages. Let his or her teachers know too. Your child may act inappropriately or revert to an earlier developmental stage because they simply don't know how to verbalize their feelings. It's your job to help them do this. The toughest part is that you're probably dealing with your own grief as well. But if you're determined to get your child through it, you'll both get through it.

And have a little mercy on yourself while you're at it! For your own mental health, make sure you take care of your needs too.

6/17: More advice from an article in the Sentinel here:

Friday, June 12, 2009

Shannon Burke Gets More Concessions

Sometimes our legal system frightens me. It should frighten all of us when it lets someone who has demonstrated that they're a risk to either the general public or their victim's safety have fewer restrictions on their freedom.

Shannon Burke, once again, convinced the judge to go easier on him. First he got bond granted (after violating his original conditions of release by violating the "no contact" order). Now the judge is permitting him to do out-patient drug treatment instead of going to a residential program (see Orlando Sentinel article at

Is he getting preferential treatment because of his "celebrity" status? Or is it because he's got a good privately retained lawyer? It's hard to say. I do know that he was previously diagnosed as a sociopath/narcissist. Perhaps he's just working the system.

Finally, I'd like to know if his victim's wishes were taken into account at today's hearing. I am appalled that the judge is enabling Mr. Burke to gradually undo our community's ability to closely supervise him.

Thursday, June 11, 2009

Assembly Line Justice - FedEx Pleas

In the past I've witnessed several judges engage in the practice of what I call "assembly line pleas." I'm sure the judges feel as though it saves time, but in reality, it does not. I've timed them.

There are several elements to taking a defendant's plea - the defense attorney tells the judge what the negotiated agreement with the State entails, the judge asks a series of questions of the defendant, and once they're satisfied that the defendant is freely and voluntarily entering his/her plea, the judge imposes the sentence.

An assembly line plea is when multiple defendants are lined up in front of the judge and plead guilty or no contest to the charges against them. The judge asks the required questions once (e.g., "How far did you go in school?" "Where were you born?" "Is this your signature on the plea form?" etc.) and then the defendants answer one after another. Generally, one-person plea takes approximately 5 minutes (sometimes more, sometimes less) to conduct. I've seen courtrooms where as many as 7 defendants are lined up for 45 minutes for their plea. And then they wait an additional 30-60 minutes (or more) for their paperwork.

There are several reasons why I dislike this practice.
  1. It treats people as if they're a number - and not worthy of the judge's one-on-one attention:
  2. It increases the risk of clerical errors because the clerk receives several files for processing at the same time.
  3. Ditto with having people line up to get fingerprints taken after their plea.

Additionally, too many judges are like this guy when taking a plea (whether of an assembly-line or one-on-one nature): Please take a moment to consider how the defendant feels and SLOW DOWN!

Sometimes That's Just the Way Justice Happens

I happened upon the final chapter in a tragedy that will be with two families for the rest of their lives. Kelvin Mutch, in August 2007, was 19 years old. He was convicted by a jury last month for 5 counts of vehicular homicide relating to an incident where he blew through a red light at over twice the speed limit, hitting a car driven by Brenda Whitaker and containing 4 of her family members who died at the scene or shortly thereafter. Ms. Whitaker, age 42, died approximately 6 months later in a nursing home. For more info, see

Assistant State Attorney Mark Graham presented testimony by two family members, one of whom lost her mother, two sisters, a cousin and her baby nephew (11 months old) in the collision. She begged Judge Tim Shea to impose the maximum penalty allowable - 15 years for each life - and she asked that each term be consecutive for a total of 75 years. Graham reminded the Court that the impact of the crash ejected 2 of the victims from the vehicle as it spun out of control. To demonstrate the ferocity of the impact, he reiterated that the baby was thrown 110 feet. Graham compared Mutch's driving to guiding a missile through heavy traffic without regard for the safety of others. The defendant had originally been reported by the press as fleeing pursuit by law enforcement, but that was not the case. Witness testimony at trial was that the vehicle was airborne as it went through the intersection and hit the victim's van. The family members and the prosecutor reminded the judge that the defendant had not shown one bit of remorse for his actions.

Defense Counsel Ismael Solis presented testimony by the defendant's mother and sister, both of whom mentioned that their faith in God is what has enabled them to endure this situation. His mother implied that it was somehow God's will that the victims died (stating that nobody knows when God is going to take them), and I took great offense at that statement. As I dealt with the tragedy of my own daughter's murder, I was sometimes subjected to well-meaning remarks of this nature. However, I quickly realized that her death, just like the deaths in this case, were the result of choices made by other people. God had absolutely nothing to do with orchestrating them.

Both the defendant's mother and sister seemed unable to admit that he was at fault, and both (not surprisingly) spoke about what a wonderful son/brother/father he was. His sister admitted that they have not yet told Mutch's 4-yr old son that his daddy is in jail (and has been for over a year). All he knows is that daddy is at work or at school. I think the toughest part of being a CourtWatcher is forcing myself to refrain from offering advice after I hear something that I know is so terribly damaging to a child. That little boy needs to know the truth, and I hope the family quickly gets counseling to help them tell him in an appropriate manner so that he feels safe and secure. Because when he learns his family has been lying to him, I suspect he will be angry and unable to trust them.

The defendant spoke briefly, but didn't have the guts to turn around and look at the victims' family in the gallery as he did so. He offered his condolences to them and said he was sad about missing his own son. His attorney told the judge that his client never intended to commit these crimes, that he is remorseful and that he understands the pain the victims' family is feeling (but unless you live it yourself, you truly cannot understand that kind of pain). His words seemed hollow in light of the devastation that was inflicted.

Judge Shea offered his sympathies to both families, and noted that Mutch scored a minimum of 560.85 months (=46.7 years) in the Department of Corrections. He imposed a sentence of 11 years for each victim, to be served consecutively, for a total of 55 years. There was an feeling of resignation on both sides of the gallery - neither side was satisfied. But they can all now close this chapter and hopefully move on (except for the appeal that will follow). There were no harsh words or tears in the hallway afterwards when both families waited for the elevators.

Sometimes that's just the way justice happens.

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Judge Lubet Will Not Be Manipulated

Lester Williams (case 2009CF66) was charged with Burglary and Petit Theft after breaking into his ex-girlfriend's home and stealing a Nintendo game system. In spite of a "no contact" order, Williams has contacted his victim (with whom he has a child) from the jail.

After playing "cat and mouse" with the court system today - first telling the judge he would plead guilty, then demanding a trial, then promising to plead, then demanding a trial - I saw him plead guilty after jury selection. He made demands that his victim come into the courtroom (she was not required to do so) in an effort to intimidate her. Only after a jury was selected and he knew that she was waiting to testify did he accept the State's offer of 10 months jail and 1 year probation. He scored 33 months in the Department of Corrections based on his criminal history.

The defendant asked the judge about his "parental rights" (wanting to know about his child's life & wanting to see his child), yet since he wasn't married to the child's mother and he hasn't filed a paternity action to secure those rights legally, he really has none at this point. Judge Lubet explained this to him. As is often the case with abusers, they use the children as a means to continue to manipulate and control the other parent.

The judge also explained that if the defendant contacts the victim, either from jail or once he's on probation, he would find him in contempt of court and sentence him to another 6 months incarceration. Judge Lubet was very forceful in his admonitions and CourtWatch applauds his concern for the victim.

We also applaud the performance of Assistant State Attorney Camelia Coward, who effectively advocated for the victim in this case and Assistant Public Defender Bartley Vickers, who went to great lengths to explain to his client what "no contact" entails - even asking the deputies to hold him downstairs so he could meet with him before sending him back to the jail.

The only thing about this hearing that disappointed me was that the State's offer was only 10 months in jail. From reviewing this defendant's criminal history, CourtWatch thinks it should have been more (the maximum would have been 15 years in prison).

Recipe for Future Conflict

I monitored several injunction hearings today in Judge Theotis Bronson's court, and one struck me as headed for disaster. The participants are currently married to one another and have a five month old child. The judge did grant a 6-month injunction, but then failed to work out all the issues that need to be addressed so that the Respondent (dad) could visit his child without having to come into contact with the Petitioner (mom).

Judge Bronson, although doubtful about its accuracy, accepted the father's representation that the Ocoee Police Department would serve as a monitored exchange location (from his testimony, it sounded as if the patrol officer who responded to the 911 call told him they would do it - I'm not familiar with any police department serving in this capacity on a regular basis, though it would be wonderful if they did).

The judge failed to fully explain what "no contact" means. In addition to not going near the Petitioner's home/workplace, the Respondent is not permitted to call/email/text her nor is he to have someone contact her on his behalf. The only exception is to have the judge designate a third party for them to communicate about their child. Judge Bronson did order child support, but failed to work out a schedule for visits with the child. After the hearing had concluded and the mother had left the courtroom to wait for her paperwork, the father asked the judge when he could see his child. The mother had to be brought back into the courtroom and a schedule was arranged. The judge even commented that he was doubtful the police would monitor the exchanges and that if it needs to be changed, the parties will have to come back to court to do so.

The judge also did not remind the parties that the injunction is only a temporary order. For these issues to be fully addressed until their child is 18, they need to file for a dissolution of marriage. He failed to ask if either party has done so. What happens in six months?

It seemed to me and the volunteer I was training that Judge Bronson was rushing through this case (it lasted about 20 minutes). In addition to only granting the injunction for 6 months (most other judges grant them for a year), his expectation that they'll come back to court if it doesn't work out with the police department is unrealistic. Most people are not able or willing to take half a day off from work to attend a hearing for which they have to wait 2 weeks. The likelihood is that they'll violate the "no contact" requirement of the injunction in order to take care of visitation issues.

As I said, this case is a recipe for future conflict which will serve to victimize all parties, but most especially the child.

Monday, June 8, 2009

Child Abuser Gets a Birthday Present From Judge

Gabriel Hernandez (2007CF18243) got a big birthday present today, all because it's Judge John Adams' "policy" to withhold adjudication of guilt on a first time felony. Apparently, the fact that Mr. Hernandez (whose birthday happens to be June 8th) has only 23 traffic offenses and one misdemeanor offense in Orange County still qualifies for a withhold so he won't lose his voting privileges.

Hernandez was charged with Aggravated Child Abuse (punishable by up to 30 years in prison) and Neglect of Child Causing Harm or Disability (15 year maximum) for inflicting multiple rib fractures upon an infant less than 12 months old. LESS THAN 12 MONTHS OLD! The negotiated plea agreement was for 5 years probation, a parenting class and no unsupervised contact with children under 18 years of age. As Judge Adams was announcing a withhold of adjudication (which will allow the defendant to truthfully state he's never been convicted of a felony), Assistant State Attorney Sarah Freeman leapt to her feet. She notified the judge that this was a negotiated plea that did not include a withhold and she objected. After a somewhat lengthy off-the-record bench conference, Judge Adams did not reverse himself.

I wonder if the judge would have made the same decision if the victim and victim's family had been present in the courtroom today. I certainly hope he sets aside his "policy" and does a better job of holding perpetrators accountable for their crimes - particularly in cases where the victim is the most vulnerable member of the human race - a small, defenseless child.

Monday, June 1, 2009

Stalking Firefighter Gets His Gun Returned

Last year Derek Lennon, an Orlando firefighter, got a huge break from Judge Jerry Brewer after being convicted by a jury for misdemeanor stalking. See WFTV's report at the time:

Today Judge Michael Murphy returned Lennon's firearm to him, over the objections of the Orange County Sheriff's Department and the State Attorney's Office. The judge granted his motion because adjudication had been withheld by Judge Brewer in February 2008 - in spite of the fact that a jury had adjudicated him guilty!

Lennon, at the time of trial, even had the gall to ask whether or not the GPS device that he planted on his ex-wife's car could be returned to him. Even in the subsequent civil injunction hearings, he attempted to avoid complying with court-ordered psychological evaluations and Batterers' Intervention requirements.

CourtWatch is concerned for his victim's safety now that he has completed his probation and is no longer under supervision of the Court. We can only hope that he has learned a valuable lesson and he refrains from further criminal behavior.

Arrest Warrant for Victim Issued Today

In monitoring Judge Marc Lubet's courtroom today, I saw the State request a material witness warrant for their case against Charles Allen Ford (2008CF16142), a defendant who has battered numerous women over the past 10 years, all of whom have declined to prosecute him. Defense Counsel Sherlene Cruz from the Public Defender's Office represented that the victim signed a Declination of Prosecution in February and as of last Friday told her office that she does not want to proceed. Assistant State Attorney Pam Davis called their investigator and Victim Advocate testify, both of whom advised the Court that the victim is cooperative and does want to proceed. She was, however, not in court this morning.

Judge Lubet wisely granted the State's motion for the warrant in order to hear from Ford's victim himself. Generally speaking, CourtWatch opposes re-victimizing victims in this manner. She is now subject to being arrested and brought before the judge. But the conflicting versions of what the victim wants to happen, coupled with the facts of the attack (alleged strangulation together with a gruesome photo of the back of her head where the defendant allegedly struck her with a hammer) and his lengthy history of several victims not prosecuting, indicate that extraordinary measures are needed to hold Mr. Ford accountable for his crimes.

Defense Counsel requested that Mr. Ford, who was in a downstairs holding cell, be brought before the judge so that he could explain the ruling and the fact that Ms. Cruz had vigorously opposed the State's motion. It wouldn't surprise me if he was attempting to intimidate his attorney too. Judge Lubet graciously agreed to do so.

If only the State had the resources to protect Mr. Ford's victim adequately, then she might feel safe enough to proceed. Until we can protect victims from retribution by their batterers, we stand little chance of making significant strides in holding perpetrators accountable, thereby reducing the prevalence of these assaults.