Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Today's SWAT Standoff & Another "Injunction Dysfunction" Are Related

Last month, Judge Sally Kest presided over an injunction hearing that ended in the SWAT shooting of one of the parties, Palin Perez, today.

In her Petition for Injunction, the mother of his two children (ages 2 and 3), alleged Perez (Facebook photo below) had been abusive throughout their 4-yr relationship.

She wrote:
Mr. Perez has been violent, mentally, emotionally, verbally, and sexually abusive throughout our relationship. He has raped me . . . at least 4 times, laughing and calling me a whore. Also asking if I liked it. I cried the whole time. He has called me a slut, [expletive], whore, n . . .loving whore and bitch. He has threatened to take my life and even told me he would "cut my throat."

He has given me multiple black eyes and punched me in my head so hard and so many times I have migraine headaches. He has choked me and hit me during my pregnancy of my 3-year old.

I am in fear of my life scared that Mr. Perez will find me. I am afraid to go anywhere especially alone. I have a 911 phone, but I do not feel safe.

He was my boyfriend for the last 4 years and we have 2 children together. During the course of our relationship I wasn't allowed (per order of Mr. Perez) to leave the house at all! I wasn't allowed to have any communication with anyone. I wasn't allowed to have a phone or seek therapy. I could not look at any men, even on TV that made Mr. Perez feel [indecipherable] about himself.

Soon (2 months) after Mr. Perez and I began our relationship I found out that Mr. Perez had Domestic Violence issues (pending) with his ex-wife. I then found police reports and other papers explain what he did to her and realized he was doing the same to me. He was arrested and charged with Attempted Murder and Assault on his ex-wife, but it appears that it was continued without a finding.
CourtWatch monitored the first hearing over which Judge Kest presided on Wednesday, October 7, 2009. The Respondent (Perez) failed to appear when the case was called at 10:09 AM (it was on the docket for 9:30 AM). After the Petitioner briefly testified about the situation, Judge Kest granted a 6 month injunction, ordered $362/mo in temporary child support, and supervised visitation through Family Ties. The hearing concluded at 10:17 AM and the Petitioner left soon thereafter, with her injunction paperwork in hand.

At that point, the only fault we could possibly find was that the injunction was only granted for 6 months.

Fast forward to later that morning.

Mr. Perez arrived about an hour later and claimed he had been present but had not been called for his hearing. As one who has spent many hours on the 16th floor of the courthouse, I find his claim to lack credibility. If he had reported to the room he was instructed to, and at the time he was instructed to arrive, court personnel would have made certain he was in the hearing.

Here's where Judge Kest blew it.

Instead of telling Mr. Perez to file a motion to request a re-hearing, she cancelled the injunction she had just granted to the Petitioner and told him to return the following afternoon at 1:00 PM for a hearing.

When the parties returned the next afternoon, they had to wait for all the other cases to be heard first (Thursday afternoon is devoted to hearings that require Spanish interpreters). When the case was finally heard at 4:21 PM, the Petitioner's attorney attempted to introduce testimony about Perez's attempted murder case from another jurisdiction, but Judge Kest refused to consider it. Perez allegedly got those teardrop tattoos on his face while serving time in prison for that assault.

In addition to the above petition  against him, Mr. Perez (6'1" and 280 lbs) had filed an injunction a few days earlier on behalf of his two children, claiming that Ms. S (5'2" and 130 lbs) had been behaving erratically, had physically assaulted him, broken things, and threatened to kill him and to commit suicide with a knife. Police were called and she was Baker Acted. Her petition was filed after her release from Lakeside.

At the hearing on October 8th, Judge Kest granted a 1-year injunction, but no longer required supervised visits through Family Ties. In fact, Judge Kest also granted custody of the children to Mr. Perez  and only weekend visits for the mother.
Three weeks later, Perez filed an affadavit stating that Ms. S had violated the injunction by driving by his home, making harrassing phone calls, and alleged that his 3-year old daughter had been exposed to improper sexual behavior by her mother and her new boyfriend.
At the hearing for the alleged violations on November 20, 2009 Judge Theotis Bronson dismissed the charges.
Mr. Perez apparently realized he was not able to control the situation further, the Court system having thrown gasoline on the fire, and he took Ms. S and the children hostage shortly thereafter - holding them for 4 days until she was able to escape this morning.

The act of a desperate man? Undoubtedly.

Suicide by Cop? Maybe.
Whether or not this situation could have been averted will be the subject of a lot of Monday morning quarterbacking by law enforcement, court personnel, DCF, and domestic violence advocates. I'm just relieved that the children and their mother were not injured or killed.

Now for our two cents about Judge Kest's performance on the injunction court bench:

CourtWatch has sent our concerns about Judge Kest to her and to those above her in the past. Our concerns, thus far, do not seem to have been addressed. So we'll share them with you.

CourtWatch volunteers have consistently noted that Judge Kest is often disrespectful to the parties in her courtroom, speaks condescendingly to them, and seems to expect them to know the legal procedures for presenting their case (in spite of the fact they rarely have an attorney to represent them).  She conducts hearings in a manner that suggests that getting it done fast is more important that getting it done thoroughly - often failing to to elicit additional testimony that would be pertinent to the case and failing to cover all the issues (child support/visitation, property retrieval) that need resolution.

After 11 months hearing injunction cases, she should be doing a better job for the citizens of Orange County.

12/11/09: More information in the Sentinel about this case.

Protecting or Re-Victimizing a Victim?

Judge Marc Lubet heard a request last Friday from the victim of Charles Allen Ford (pictured here), convicted in July of Aggravated Battery (Great Bodily Harm). Ford was also initially charged with Burglary of Dwelling with Assault/Battery and Battery after a particularly gruesome assault on his victim with a hammer, but those charges were dropped in exchange for the plea.

In monitoring this case, CourtWatch saw how truly difficult a judge's job can be - trying to balance the requirements of the Law against the often opposing wishes of the victim. Ford's victim repeatedly told the State that she wanted to prosecute and told Defense Counsel that she wanted to drop charges. Ultimately, because both sides were convinced of what she had told them, Judge Lubet issued a Material Witness Warrant in June to have her picked up and to testify in court as to what her real position was. Click here for more info.

When she first appeared before the judge, she affirmed her desire to testify on behalf of the State and the judge released her. She then failed to appear for trial, and a second warrant was issued. This time Judge Lubet had her held at the jail. Only after Mr. Ford knew that his victim was in custody and was prepared to testify, did he accept the State's plea offer of 4 years in the Department of Corrections.

It is important to note that this was not Ford's first assault on an intimate partner. He has had several other women (5 or 6 I believe) whom have been victimized by him but who have been intimidated into dropping charges.

Is this re-victimizing the victim by incarcerating her and charging her for costs of investigation? Yes.

Is it also doing what was necessary to uphold the Law and make a batterer be accountable for his actions? Yes.

Is it the judge's responsibility to protect the victim against making bad choices that could lead to her being in a position to be assaulted or even killed? You tell me.

The result of Friday's hearing? Judge Lubet denied the victim's request to visit Mr. Ford while he is incarcerated for the next four years. He told her that he would not be party to permitting Ford to continue to victimize her.

CourtWatch likes to see perpetrators held accountable for their crimes, particularly as it relates to repeat offenders and we commend the judge for doing precisely that. But we don't like seeing victims re-victimized by the justice system.

In spite of the expenses incurred in tracking her down, CourtWatch thinks the Court should waive the costs of investigation in this matter. If Ford is/was financially supporting her, having this added financial burden continues to make her feel dependent upon him and his family, thereby making it more difficult for her to make a break from them.

Was this justice? How would you have handled the case?

Sunday, November 22, 2009

One Down, One to Go - The Shannon Burke Saga

Shannon Burke's plea deal in Seminole County on November 20th doesn't surprise me in the least. In the nearly three years I've been courtwatching, I've seen hundreds of cases either dropped or have minimal sentences when the victim does not want to help prosecutors hold their batterers accountable for breaking the law.

Believe it or not, his sentence is more severe than most. And it focuses on his assault to the dog (breed is pictured here), not on his treatment of his wife. Click here to review the evidence photos.

Catherine Burke was initially gung-ho about prosecuting her husband. But as is often the case, he is working very hard to redeem himself in her (as well as the public's) eyes, and she has decided to give him a second chance. It is a terribly difficult thing for those who've never walked in the shoes of a victim of domestic violence to comprehend - particularly when she almost lost her life. But as a survivor myself, I understand the numerous factors that go into influencing victims to give their partner another chance.

To recap, Burke pled to one count of Using a Firearm While Under the Influence of Alcohol and one count of Animal Cruelty. The charge of violating the conditions of pretrial release on the domestic violence case was dropped. He will be required to serve 6 months in jail (he must turn himself in by December 31st to begin serving), 3 years probation, and 100 hours of community service at an animal shelter. In addition to continuing his current counseling, Burke must attend one AA meeting each week and complete a firearm safety class.

All in all, it's a good sentence for a first-time offense (though there was another similar offense of discharging a firearm with a different woman for which he was never arrested). It's much tougher than most I see (which is a sad testament about our criminal justice system). Most first-timers have adjudication withheld, which means that if they successfully complete their probation, they are not considered a convicted felon.

I am disappointed, however, that the State did not require him to complete the 26 week Batterer's Intervention Program. The counseling he is currently doing will hopefully deal with the issues of power & control.

I am also disappointed that Judge Marlene Alva will permit Burke to participate in the Work Release Program if he qualifies. I hope his new radio gig, where he has bought his own air time, does not qualify as a "job" for Work Release purposes.

One down.

One to go.

Burke is scheduled for his Violation of Probation hearing on a 2007 DUI charge in Orange County next month. There are two hearing dates set - 12/4 and 12/14 - and we're not certain yet exactly when it'll happen. But we'll be keeping a watchful eye on it.

By the way, once it was all over in court on Friday, did anyone notice the Sentinel mention that Shannon asked his wife to fix him meatloaf for dinner Friday night? Seems to me he's the one that ought to be fixing dinner for her after all that he put her through.

Whatever Happened to . . . ? (#3)

Wade Edwards
2009-CF-015215-O Bond Motion held 11/5/09 Judge Tim Shea
Charged with Attempted 2nd degree murder
Defendant allegedly shot his 16-yr old daughter's 18-yr old boyfriend in the rear when he caught them having sex.
$50,000 bond was set; no trial date yet

Jose L Torres
2009-CF-008384-O Judge Jenifer Davis
Charged with Causing Bodily Injury During Felony; Possess Firearm by Convicted Felon; Shooting from Vehicle w/in 1000' of a person; Leave Scene of Accident w/Injuries
Defendant allegedly struck 2 children with his car and attempted to shoot their father after he confronted defendant for hitting the children
11/19/09: Affidavit of Violation of Conditions of Release (GPS) was filed, now being held on NO BOND status

Loc Buu Tran
2006-CF-014820-O In custody since 10/19/06 ~ Trial now scheduled for 11/16/09 with Judge John Adams
1st Degree Murder. Allegedly stabbed a UCF student to death 10/06 when she tried to break up with him. Also was convicted 8 years ago in Clearwater for rape. Mistrial was declared 8/12/09 after Judge Jenifer Davis realized during the first witness' testimony that she had worked on the case when in the PD's office.
Why can't we seem to get this guy tried?

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

What's your verdict?

Posted by WESH News on 3/1/09:

Man Shoots Girlfriend In Back At Least 5 Times, Police Say
Mother Of 4 Shot, Killed In Orange Co. Condominium

ORLANDO, Fla. -- Police said a man told them he shot his girlfriend in the back because he was mad at her on Sunday.

Dwayne Grant, 29, was charged with first-degree murder.
Family members said Grant shot his girlfriend five or six times in the back at unit 2355 in the Huntington on the Green condominiums.

Randy Bowles said his niece, 28-year-old Rahmisha Oliver, had a 3-month-old child. Bowles said he was only feet away from Oliver when she was shot.

"He stood right here, and I was standing right here by the dryer," he said.

Bowles said Grant and Oliver were arguing, and then Grant snapped.

"When she got shot the first time, she was trying to come this way," he said. "He was coming this way. When she tried to turn around, he was still shooting. That's when she fell right here and he kept shooting at her."

There are five spots on the tile floor where bullets ricocheted and then hit a wall.

Crime scene investigators removed part of the wall so that they could get to the bullets.

Bowles said he grabbed a knife from the kitchen and chased Grant outside.

Police found Grant hiding behind a bush 30 feet away from Oliver's apartment.

"She was a very friendly, nice person," said neighbor Sue Walden.

Neighbors said Oliver was a good mother to her four children, but her relationship with Grant was violent. He has a criminal history including a charge for abusing her when she was pregnant.

Bowles said Oliver's mother is going to adopt her four children and they are moving to South Carolina.
Grant was in court today, before Judge Jenifer Davis, on trial for First Degree Murder with a firearm. Evidence presented during trial showed that the defendant discharged his gun 8 times - emptying all rounds from the magazine - during the incident. His attorney, Tanya Terry, conceded that he pulled the trigger and argued that they went to trial because there was no premeditation involved. Something happened to make him "snap" during his argument with Oliver over the paternity of her 3-month old daughter.

Testimony at trial showed that Grant went upstairs, retrieved his gun, went downstairs, chambered a round, and aimed it at Oliver before firing it at her, all within a matter of moments. Assistant State Attorney Ken Lewis argued that his actions showed conscious intent and were not a spur of the moment act. Oliver's uncle, Randy Bowles, was on the line with 911 during the shooting and the jury listened to multiple gunshots as they were fired and his niece's life ended.

Ms. Terry attempted to convince the jury that her client suddenly "snapped" and that his actions were not premeditated. Mr. Lewis argued that they were indeed premeditated.

What's your verdict?

Jury deliberations will continue Wednesday. I'll keep you posted.

11/18/09: The defendant was sentenced to LIFE in the Department of Corrections.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Every Day is a Gift

Even though this case doesn't fall into the usual category of cases we follow, CourtWatch was sufficiently appalled after John Hill Hawthorne, age 19, (pictured here) was released on home confinement by Judge John Adams soon after his arrest. Hawthorne is accused in the July murder that involved over a dozen pocket-knife stab wounds in the back of Joel Boner, a homeless man who allegedly flirted with the defendant. Hawthorne had reportedly been drinking all night before coming upon Boner's camp near his parents' 20-acre property in Ocoee.

Click here to see the earlier post.

Mr. Hawthorne was in court Friday before Chief Judge Belvin Perry, who took the case after Judge Adam's earlier ruling. Hawthorne was requesting the opportunity to go outside his parents' home in order to "get some sun" and help cultivate the acreage into a hay farm.

When Hawthorne's father, Milton Claude Hawthorne testified, he couldn't seem to remember whether or not the family was going to clear the old, overgrown orange grove in order to plant hay or sod. When he finally seemed to recollect that they were growing hay, he was sketchy about what that entailed. He mentioned that they had been trying to get it established since last December. He testified that having John do the work would give him the opportunity to earn some money as well. The elder Hawthorne was also evasive when Judge Perry asked who had mowed the grass around the home prior to the incident, claiming that he, John, and his wife took turns doing it. His son was a much better witness on the stand than he was.

Assistant State Attorney Ken Lewis presented Detective Inizzuzi, who testified that there was no visible evidence of any cultivation work being done. She also testified that Cameron Milner, eyewitness to the murder, had lived with the Hawthorne family earlier in the year, and had no knowledge of his friend having responsibility for chores of any kind.

Mr. Lewis effectively painted a picture of a young defendant who has accomplished nothing of value in his life - having been expelled from school, was unemployed, and was drinking alcohol while driving an ATV on his family's property that fateful night. The victim's family was represented by his uncle, Lon Boner, who found it extremely objectionable that Hawthorne might be permitted to come within a few yards of the murder site. He also testified that the family did not know about the bond hearing earlier, or else he would have attended (he is the closest family member and lives in Georgia).

In his final argument, Defense Counsel Charles Willetts asserted that even inmates at the jail get to go outside for sun. He claimed that his client was merely defending himself (something I find hard to believe given the fact that Mr. Boner had over a dozen stab wounds in his back), and that Hawthorne's request is a reasonable one.

In his final argument, Assistant State Attorney Ken Lewis must have read my mind when he offered that the State would have no problem with Mr. Hawthorne serving the rest of his pretrial release at the jail. He emphatically reminded the defendant that every day of the past 3+ months that he's been on home confinement have been a gift. After all, the victim can't have any modification of his situation.

The ruling?

Judge Perry ruled that Hawthorne could have 1 hour a day (the same as inmates at the jail) outdoors. He is to be limited to a radius of 50 yards from the home and must schedule his hour with the home confinement officer. 

We can only hope the defendant's parents give him some chores to do.

Whatever happened to . . . ?

State v. Thomas Maroney
False Imprisonment; Battery
Maroney was a Sergeant with the Ocoee Police Department when he allegedly assaulted a woman at a party in July, 2008 by spanking her with a belt. He pled no contest to the false imprisonment and battery charges and the State dropped the Sexual Battery charge. Adjudication was withheld and he was sentenced to 1 year probation and required to permanently surrender his law enforcement certification in March, 2009.

Maroney was in court on 11/13/09 to request early termination of probation (having served 8 months of his 12 month sentence). Defense Counsel Mark Lippman argued that his phone-in status probation is not a good use of State resources, that he has successfully completed 2/3 of his sentence, and that his previous record as a law enforcement officer should speak for itself.

Assistant State Attorney William Busch concurred (to a certain extent), adding that having phone-in probation is not a hardship, agreeing that he has been successful thus far, and noting that a similar incident with a female cadet, the subject of an Internal Affairs investigation, also spoke for itself.

The "slap on the wrist" sentence he got in this case was at the victim's request because she did not want to testify.

Judge Jenifer Davis, after (in our opinion unnecessarily) congratulating him for being successful thus far, re-iterated that there was to be no contact with the victim, told him he would have to complete the full 12 months, and permitted him to transfer his probation to another county.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Three Co-Defendants, Four Wasted Lives

As reported in the Sentinel on September 14, 2007....

Morgan Willis may have died because he wouldn't get off the phone.

His nephew and a nephew's friend beat, kicked and stabbed him, cut his throat, then urinated on him -- all because he was tying up the line when the nephew was waiting for a call from his girlfriend, according to the Orange County Sheriff's Office.

Jerry Allen Henry, age 22, was sentenced today in the 2007 murder of his uncle, Morgan Willis (age 37), to 40 years in prison as part of a plea that involved two other cases (a felony battery and a violation of probation for a theft charge).

When Assistant State Attorney Les Hess gave the factual basis for the plea, he indicated that Henry and his two co-defendants beat Willis to death after their initial attack on him because they feared going to jail for having assaulted him.

In addition to being stabbed and having his neck slashed, the victims beat Willis' head with an axe handle wrapped in a bicycle chain. His body was buried near his home in a shallow grave and was undiscovered for several months.

Mr. Hess did not seem as on top of things with this case as we usually see him in the courtroom. The sentencing scoresheet needed two corrections (in fact, a driver's license offense that was incorrectly attributed to the defendant was deleted because he was 10 years old at the time). Mr. Hess also had to ask Judge Bob LeBlanc to repeat the sentence on the Violation of Probation case before him.

The soonest Mr. Henry will be able to leave prison (with gain time for good behavior) will be after he has served 34 years. That's a long time for someone who feared going to jail.

Co-defendant James Hollriegel, age 19, (pictured here) is expected to testify against the third co-defendant, Francis Fowler, who is awaiting extradition from Canada.

Three young lives lost to incarceration. And a fourth life to the grave.

Defendant Sentences Himself to Death

Last week, three CourtWatchers monitored the three day trial of Pedro Antuna, who was charged with seven counts of Sexual Activity w/Child, one count Lewd/Lascivious Conduct, and five counts of Lewd/Lascivious Battery over the course of 6 years beginning mid-2000.
Mr. Antuna was clean-shaven with a neat haircut and well dressed with a suit and tie, as though to project the message that someone so “put together” could not have committed the heinous acts for which he was on trial.

Our volunteers were impressed with the grace of the eldest victim (who is now an adult) as she testified. In addition to being thoroughly prepared, Assistant State Attorney Ryan Williams was the epitome of a gentleman as he led the victim through the ordeal of telling a room full of strangers about the embarrassing and disgraceful acts she was forced to endure at the hands of the defendant. Defense Counsel Melissa Stockham's cross examination of the victim was nothing short of horrendous in the way she treated this young lady.

Stockham was condescending and repeatedly asked why she didn’t say anything about the abuse even after the defendant was removed from the home and their parents' divorce proceedings were underway. She kept asking questions over and over again in various ways trying to get different answers and/or cause the victim to give conflicting answers - making comments such as “well which is it?” “is it your contention?” “you don’t remember?” Stockham implied that because the victims called the defendant "Dad" even while the abuse was happening, that such abuse not must have occurred if they kept calling him Dad.

The oldest victim maintained her composure under both direct and cross-examination. She testified that throughout the many years she was subjected to the defendant's assaults, she complied because she was attempting to protect her younger sisters from being victimized. As is so often the case, it was only after the defendant was no longer in the home did the victim feel safe to disclose the abuse once she suspected a younger sister had also been assaulted.

She testified that Mr. Antuna had two sides to his personality but was a good Dad to her younger siblings and provided a stable home.  She also believed that she was the only victim in the home. The defense attorney attempted to put blame on a younger sibling for not saying anything when she once witnessed the eldest victim on one occasion run from the bedroom (where all the assaults occurred) holding her pants up - expecting that the younger child should ask the victim what had happened and try to help.

In response to repeated questions from the defense attorney as to why the victim never confided to anyone about the abuse she stated, “It’s hard to walk around with an ‘I’ve been raped sign’ on my forehead,” and “I didn’t expect to be raped my whole childhood.”

One of the things I find most aggravating is that defense attorneys in these cases seem expect children to react to situations in the same manner as an adult would be expected to behave. And they're made to feel guilty for not trying to stop their caretaker - a bigger, stronger, adult who wields incredible power over their lives - from abusing them or another family member.

It is the fear of encountering such treatment that keeps victims from being willing to prosecute in these cases.

On the second day of trial, Antuna attempted to delay the trial by asking to fire his attorney. Judge Lubet told him he was free to do so, but that the trial would continue.
That night he attempted suicide by hanging himself while in custody at the jail. He was transported to the hospital.
The judge determined that since the defendant voluntarily did not attend court, case law permitted the trial to continue.  The trial concluded on Friday and the jury rendered a verdict of guilty of all thirteen counts. Sentencing was scheduled for January.
Mr. Antuna succumbed to his injuries and passed away on Saturday.
As someone who was victimized by a loved one who committed suicide, I suspect the victims in this case will feel a combination of sadness, anger, relief and gratitude. Sad that the person they loved came to such a tragic end. Angry that they don't get to see him pay for what he did (though I suspect he is now paying dearly). Relief that the ordeal is over. And gratitude that this abuser can never hurt them again.
I hope they learn that forgiving does not mean that they have to agree that what he did was ok. Forgiving is merely letting go of the bitterness, anger, and other negative feelings one has and allowing God to take care of the situation as He sees fit. Forgiving is the best way to quit being a victim and to start being a survivor and to truly thrive.

The Lisa Nowak Media Frenzy

I think the general consensus after today's hearing is that all parties concerned are glad it's over. The victim, the judge, reporters, and most especially, the defendant. The saga that began with Lisa Nowak's arrest on February 5, 2007 ended with a packed courtroom and a sentence of 1 year probation nearly 3 years after the offense.

As we waited outside the courtroom, not even the prosecutors nor the defendant could gain entry until the appointed time. Nowak had to retreat to a private waiting area while the cameras followed her like a cat stalks its prey. I couldn't imagine having that much attention focused on me and I felt a measure of sympathy for her in that moment.

I sat smushed between two reporters and directly behind Colleen Shipman, feeling a bit like a media vulture myself. Originally charged with Burglary of a Dwelling with Assault or Battery, Attempted Kidnapping with Intent to Inflict Harm/Terror with a Weapon, and Battery, the defendant pled to the lesser included offense of Burglary of a Conveyance (5 year maximum penalty) and the misdemeanor Battery (1 year maximum). The State dropped the Attempted Kidnapping charge.

In listening to Ms. Shipman recount Ms. Nowak's behavior - I was perplexed as to why the State did not charge Aggravated Stalking (which carries a possible 5 year penalty). The facts of the case certainly seemed to support such a charge. The victim testified about her fear that Nowak intended to kill her in the parking lot. Nowak had thoroughly researched murder, corpse dismemberment, disguises, and trace evidence prior to the offense. Several weeks before that night at the airport, Nowak entered Astronaut William Oelefein's apartment without his permission, stole Shipman's personal information (address, phone, email) as well as her travel itinerary. She assembled a number of items to be used as weapons in confronting Shipman. Nowak drove to Florida, paid cash along the way, used an assumed name and wore a disguise in order to avoid having a record of her presence here. She followed the victim for several hours while at the airport and subsequently tracked her to her car. The victim, who prior to the incident had never met Nowak, thought she was going to be killed or carjacked.

Sounds like stalking to me.

Defense Counsel Donald Lykkebak asked Judge Marc Lubet to treat his client just like anyone else who pled to the identical offenses (Burglary of Conveyance + Battery). I would have to say the Judge Lubet did exactly that. This was a first offense, and judges routinely withhold adjudication on first offenses. I must state that it's a sad commentary that our system allows one "freebie" in terms of one's record for a felony conviction. A misdemeanor maybe. But if you plead to a felony there ought to be a criminal record.  Nowak was initially charged with Attempted Murder, although the State declined to proceed on that charge - likely because Nowak's pre-Miranda statements and some evidence were suppressed as a result of police misconduct.

Assistant State Attorney Pam Davis emphatically argued that this is not like your usual Burglary of a Conveyance case and recounted Nowak's numerous stalking behaviors. I agree. So why did the State agree to the plea? I ask again, why wasn't she charged with Aggravated Stalking?

In addition to 1 year's probation, the judge sentenced Nowak to 50 hours of community service. She is permitted to "buy out" her hours at the rate of $10/hour. As a side note, CourtWatch believes this practice unfairly benefits defendants who have the financial resources to avoid having to actually do community service and would like to see the practice eliminated.

She was ordered to have no contact with either Shipman or Oelefein, to write a sincere letter of apology, pay restitution, and to complete an 8-hour anger management course. She is permitted to transfer probation to Texas and must obtain the consent of her probation officer prior to traveling.

Judge Lubet commented that he has no sympathy whatsoever about the impact this case has on her Naval career and retirement, stating "You've brought this all on yourself."

To the best of my knowledge, the man at the center of all this, Bill Oelefein, has never been called upon to testify in open court.

In addition to the apology letter to Shipman, Ms. Nowak ought to consider sending a thank you note to the OPD for botching the case.

Both parties have paid a high price for Nowak's assault. Now that they no longer have the spectre of this case hanging over their heads, I hope the media leaves them alone to heal and get on with their lives.

To watch the complete hearing, click here.

Sentinel photo gallery
Case Synopsis

Sunday, November 8, 2009

Whatever Happened to . . .?

Sometimes cases show up on the Watchlists that never quite made it into the media. Sometimes they did at time of arrest, but were resolved without fanfare.

Every so often, as we monitor these cases and discover their dispositions, we think the public should know what happened. Here are some recent ones that we think you might find of interest:

State v. Jeffrey Allan Eymann
Charged with 1,200 counts of Lewd/Lascivious Molestation of a Child < 12 years old
Victim was the daughter of his ex-girlfriend

Eymann pled on 10/16 to 1 count of Lewd/Lascivious Conduct. All other counts were dropped. Sentenced to 7 years in prison + 5 years sex offender probation; no contact with victim, but may have contact with victim's mother.

State v. Eric Tomasello
Charged with DV Battery & Assault
Defendant is a Casselberry police officer & allegedly slammed his wife's head on a kitchen counter.
The Assault charge was dropped. The defendant was referred to pre-trial diversion. If he successfully completes the requirements of the program, there will be no criminal record.  The requirement to surrender firearms/weapons was also deleted by the judge.
Fox35 coverage

Thursday, November 5, 2009

Another Defendant Off the Hook

Once again, Judge Tim Shea let a defendant off the hook for domestic violence - not even letting the jury determine whether or not he was guilty.

Yesterday was Michael Dwayne Manning's day in court. He was charged with Aggravated Battery on a Pregnant Person for assaulting the mother of his unborn child. The victim had signed a declination of prosecution a few days after he was released from jail.

Assistant State's Attorney Eric Trabin, using a 911 tape, photos of injuries sustained, and testimony from law enforcement, demonstrated that the victim's injuries were the result of an assault by Mr. Manning on the date in question. 

The victim, however, testified that her injuries were 3-4 days old and were the result of an altercation with someone else. The victim claimed that she jumped on Mr. Manning first in an effort to prevent him from taking car keys out of her purse and leaving. She took 100% of the blame for his actions.

Testimony elicited by the State showed that, at the time of the assault, the crying victim told the 911 operator that Mr. Manning had jumped on her. The police officer testified that the victim related that Mr. Manning had choked her. The officer also testified that the victim's injuries appeared as though they had been recently inflicted - and were not several days old. The State also demonstrated that the victim is financially dependent upon Mr. Manning. Additionally, her baby is due to be delivered very soon. Mr. Trabin went to great lengths to demonstrate that the victim had made prior inconsistent statements and told the jury that they should take that into consideration when weighing her credibility.

The jury should have been allowed to deliberate on the evidence that had been presented. But they were not. After the State rested, Judge Shea granted the defense motion for Judgment of Aquittal (JOA) on the basis that the State was relying on the victim's prior inconsistent statements. From what CourtWatch saw, however, the State relied upon the victim's excited utterances (a 911 recording in addition to her statements to law enforcement) and demonstrated that the injuries were recent (using photos together with the observations of the police officer).

Judge Shea's decision to toss the case sends the message to Mr. Manning that the system is either unable or unwilling to hold him accountable for his actions in this incident. He has empowered an abuser to thumb his nose at the laws and the judicial system that is supposed to uphold them. Assistant State Attorney Trabin attempted to enforce the law in spite of the fact that the victim had declined to prosecute.

CourtWatch commends Mr. Trabin's efforts in this matter and appreciates the fact that he did what he could to hold Mr. Manning accountable to the law, in spite of the victim's lack of support.

Finally, in spite of feeling frustrated with the victim for not aiding in the prosecution of her batterer, I understand the reasons for her refusal to testify against him. Rather than criticize the victim, I think we need to criticize the System - in this case, Judge Shea - for not upholding the Law. This is the second case that CourtWatch has seen this judge toss a case when the victim refused to testify against her abuser (the first was a case that involved the discharge of a gun in the home).

PS: Mr. Manning, age 34, in spite of being acquitted of this offense, is still in custody for a drug case. In fact, a review of the Orange County Clerk's site shows numerous felony and misdemeanor charges dating back to 1992 (age 17). Most charges (20 total) are drug related or involve resisting arrest, although he has a couple of battery and weapons cases.

Budget Cuts Kill Valuable Program at Courthouse

As I walked through the lobby at the Orange County Courthouse this afternoon, I spotted a sign that told of another budget cut fatality. A Place for Children, providing a safe place for parents to leave their children while they attend court since June 1998, will shut down in two weeks for lack of funding. Per the Ninth Judicial Circut's website:
Children are routinely brought to the Courthouse because their caregivers have no safe place to leave them while they are required to make court appearances. Often children are left in the halls outside the courtrooms because they become too disruptive in the courtrooms. Further they can be exposed to disturbing and inappropriate proceedings. A Place for Children – a licensed drop-in child care center for children whose families have business with the court – lets children be children, instead of spending long sessions listening to adult interactions that could be painful or frightening for them.
A Place for Children’s goal is to provide on-site, safe, high quality child care for families with official court business while ensuring linkage to available social services. A key component of A Place for Children is that it will serve as a link between much needed social services and the high-risk families who could use these services. It is hoped that linking families with needed services may break the cycle of repeated visits to court and that A Place for Children will provide a vehicle for reaching out to individuals with information about the community services to which they and their families are entitled. A Place for Children can be a touchpoint for a family member in a moment of crisis, making a difference in the life of that individual and their family.
Through referrals to needed services and through information, assistance is provided to children and families well beyond their visit to the Courthouse. During their visit to A Place for Children, parents and guardians, can obtain up to date information on important child development and parenting topics or receive referrals that connect their families to the resources they need for future success. Referrals are given to Neighborhood Centers for Families and other helpful community services such as housing assistance, health care, credit and career counseling, long term child care, and educational programs for children.
There is no fee for this service and a morning and afternoon snack are served. Children up to the age of fourteen can spend four hour blocks of time at the Center. The Center is open from 8:00 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. The staff members and volunteers are trained in child development, health, safety, and nutrition, recognizing and preventing child abuse and neglect, and appropriate activities and best practices in working with children. All staff members are certified in CPR and First Aid. Caregivers are given a pager that is internal to the Courthouse when they enroll their children. This enables A Place for Children staff to reach them immediately when needed. Caregivers must complete an enrollment and information form before leaving their children and are given the opportunity to give staff members specific individual instructions for the care of their children. Every caregiver must give an emergency contact for their children. Even when a caregiver is remanded in custody the child is spared the experience of their caregiver’s arrest and detention, and has a safe, caring, comfortable place to play while waiting for their emergency contact to come and take care of them.
What a shame to lose this valuable service to the citizens of Orange County! If you think this service is worth providing, please contact Mayor Crotty and the Board of County Commissioners.