Monday, August 30, 2010

How many more stalking victims must die?

This weekend's murder of Loni Amber Turner at the hands of her suicidal ex-boyfriend, Erin Ross, highlights a couple of very serious concerns that CourtWatch has with the justice system.

We've previously featured our concerns about judges who set hearings without providing temporary injunctions while the parties await their day in court (which are scheduled 2 weeks after the petition is filed). See our blog about the Alissa Blanton murder earlier this year. So I won't rehash that issue.

The second concern we have is that many judges and law enforcement personnel just don't "get" how lethal stalking behavior can be. Alissa Blanton had not been in a romatic relationship with her stalker. Perhaps the judge felt she wasn't really at risk of violence. Perhaps he just didn't want to read the 70+ pages of her petition. As we now know, her stalker/murderer, Roger Troy, was extremely lethal. But her death should have been a wake up call to every judge in this State to review what the Florida Statutes say about stalking.

From what has been reported in the media, it would appear as though Ms. Turner was being stalked by her ex-boyfriend. As reported in the Sentinel,
Loni Amber Turner was afraid. An ex-boyfriend she'd met online wouldn't leave her alone. He sent her text messages. He watched her apartment. He showed up at the trade school where she was a student. "I am really afraid to come out of the apartment, …" she wrote in a domestic violence petition last week.
Even though the judge set a hearing for September 3rd, her request for a temporary injunction was denied, mostly likely because she did not state that there had been any acts or overt threats of violence. Or perhaps it was because she had tried to remain friendly with Mr. Ross after the relationship was officially over.

If stalkers aren't stopped, their behavior can escalate and become violent. Ms. Turner's effort to stop her tormentor was not taken as seriously as it should have been. Circuit Judge William A. Parsons said that Turner had failed to prove she was in danger. By issuing a summons, without a temporary injunction at the same time, the judge put her at a higher risk for victimization.

What Judge Parsons tragically did not seem to understand is that Mr. Ross' behavior was indeed dangerous, even though he did not physically assault Ms Turner.

Seventy-five percent (75%) of fatalities occur when the relationship is in the process of ending or has recently ended. By putting Mr. Ross on notice that his victim wanted him to stay away from her, and by not issuing a court order telling him to stay away, Judge Parsons' Order Setting Hearing (OSH) may have been the straw that broke the proverbial camel's back in this situation.

OK, I know, I said I wouldn't rehash the OSH issue. I just couldn't stop myself.

The US Department of Justice Stalking Victimization Study (Jan 2009) estimated that 3.4 million persons were victims of stalking during a 12 month period. Stalking is a course of conduct directed at a specific person that would cause a reasonable person to feel fear. Individually, the acts that were measured are not criminal in nature. But when done repeatedly and collectively, they may cause the victim to fear for his or her safety. The behaviors measured in the study are:
  • making unwanted phone calls
  • sending unsolicited or unwanted letters or emails
  • following or spying on the victim
  • showing up at places without a legitimate reason
  • waiting at places for the victim
  • leaving unwanted items, presents or flowers
  • posting information or spreading rumors about the victim on the internet, in a public place, or by word of mouth
From the following chart, it looks like the criminal justice system has a lot to do in order to be perceived as helpful to victims of stalking:

The number of cases where criminal charges were not filed is disgraceful:

Stalking is a potentially lethal crime. It's time for EVERY member of law enforcement (cops, prosecutors and judges) to treat it seriously.

To everyone in law enforcement: If Alissa Blanton's death didn't wake you up, Loni Amber Turner's death certainly should.

Stalking Resources available online.

Friday, August 20, 2010

Beware . . . You may not be as protected as you think

Two weeks ago I was in Judge Marc Lubet's courtroom when I heard something that left me somewhat stunned. An alleged sex offender, who was released prior to trial with GPS monitoring through a private company, Court Programs, fled to Honduras in March. As I inquired further, I learned that another alleged sex offender who was awaiting trial with GPS monitoring fled to Turkey in July.

Court Programs uses state-of-the-art technology from SecureAlert to track their clients. The units enable the SecureAlert monitoring center to verbally communicate directly with the client and establish a three-way call with the defendant's local officer. An exclusion/inclusion zone can be programmed, and real-time details about an offender's location delivered. The daily cost to the defendant ranges from $8 to $15.

GPS monitoring can be a win-win for all parties involved. The defendant, who is innocent until proven guilty, can maintain his/her job while awaiting trial. The victim is assured that the defendant's movements are being monitored. The taxpayers avoid having to pay approximately $85/day to house them at the jail.

But it's not a win-win if the monitoring company doesn't do its job and notify law enforcement and the Court when a defendant violates their conditions of pretrial release (or probation).

In talking with members of the court system, I received almost overwhelming approval of the job that Court Programs does. With the exception of occasional concerns about slow service in getting inmates set up with their devices on weekends, they do a good job in providing this much needed service.

The following two Orange County sex offenders have fled this country to avoid prosecution:

Lewis Lopez-Moya [Honduras]
Lewd/Lascivious Battery (2 counts)
Lopez-Moya's victim, whom he admitted to sexually assaulting, was 14 years old when the offenses occurred in November, 2009. He was granted bond in the amount of $10,000 by Judge Marc Lubet on 12/17/09, put on GPS monitoring through Court Programs, ordered to turn in his passport (which he did on 12/18/10), restricted to Orange County, ordered to have no contact with the victim, and had a curfew imposed. His conditions of release were modified in February, 2010 to permit daytime travel to surrounding counties for work purposes only.

On March 15, 2010, Lopez-Moya's defense attorney was permitted to withdraw from the case. "Irreconcilable differences" was cited as the reason.

On or about March 24, 2010, Court Programs lost contact with the defendant.  That same day, an Order to Take Into Custody was entered, citing that the defendant had knowingly or intentionally altered or tampered with the device. The bond was forfeited.

On March 25, 2010, the bondsman filed a motion to have the bond forfeiture rescinded, citing the failure of Court Programs to adequately notify the bondsman and the Court of defendant's having violated the terms of pretrial release as follows:
Pursuant to the CPI FL [Court Programs Inc, Florida] tracking records, for weeks upon weeks, the Defendant did not reside at [address], Orlando and had been breaching his curfew.  CPI never informed the surety [bondsman] of these breaches and never provided notice to this Honorable Court. As such, the Court's directed program in which the surety had to utilize and rely upon was in breach (emphasis mine).

Pursuant to the CPI FL tracking records, for long periods of time the Defendant's GPS tracker showed that the monitoring was "UNAVAILABLE." The signal for "UNAVAILABLE," usually signifies that the Defendant is or has been tampering with the GPS monitor. CPI FL and Court Programs Inc failed to not only inform the surety, but failed to take appropriate action against the Defendant in which they had been secured by this court to secure.
Attached to the motion was dozens of pages of tracking data, together with two maps that showed that the defendant traveled to Brevard County and was last "pinged" suspiciously close to the Melbourne International Airport.

A hearing was held in July and Judge Lubet granted the bondsman's motion to return the money to him.

Selami Duman [Turkey]
Solicitation of Minor via Computer; Travel to Meet Minor for Unlawful Act; Lewd/Lascivious Exhibition Using Computer (2 counts)
Duman is a Turkish citizen and was granted a $30,000 bond on June 16, 2010 by Judge Jeffrey Arnold. He was released two days later on GPS monitoring through Court Programs after surrendering his passport.

On July 1, 2010 a hearing on the defendant's motion to have his passport returned was denied. He faced deportation because his employment had been terminated as a result of the arrest and he was unable to obtain a new visa in order to seek employment.

On July 4, 2010 the GPS device either malfunctioned or it was disconnected.  It took Court Programs four days to notify the bondsman that they had lost track of the defendant.

On July 8, 2010, an order was drafted to have the defendant taken into custody.

On July 12, 2010 an Order to Take Into Custody was entered, citing that the defendant had allowed his device to power down on June 18th [this must be a typo on the paperwork - other documentation says it was July 4th] and that all attempts to contact him had failed.

The monitoring device was mailed back to Court Programs with a return address in Turkey.

These defendants either traveled on someone else's passport, used a forged a passport, or managed to secure a duplicate from their governments. We are curious to know how they got out of this country.


Chief Judge Belvin Perry issued Administrative Order 2008-27 on 12/31/08 that governs the use of GPS and SCRAM (alcohol) monitoring devices.  It does not specify a provider for these services.

Court Programs is a privately held company that provides the majority of GPS monitoring services in the county for the Ninth Judicial Circuit. A search of Orange County's Contracts & Purchasing Division records turned up no formal contract. CourtWatch has also been unable to locate a formal Memorandum of Understanding between them and the County, the Court or the Corrections Department.

We are concerned that there is little to no oversight of this company as it is tasked with monitoring some dangerous offenders in our community. While Court Programs has been very successful with nearly all of their clients, even being accused at times of being too aggressive in reporting infractions, two individuals accused of sex crimes against children will most likely never be held accountable for those crimes.

More attention to this matter is needed. Some believe that the Ninth Circuit is responsible for overseeing this matter. Others believe that the County Corrections should handle it. There is a gap somewhere that needs to be plugged. The citizens need to have more leverage and the ability to impose sanctions upon GPS providers when things go awry and our defendants go astray.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Suicidal drug addict gets 15 years for trafficking

While waiting for a domestic violence sentencing to be called in Judge Tim Shea's courtroom today, I watched with incredulity as the judge was required, by Florida Statute, to sentence a man to a minimum mandatory 15 years in the Department of Corrections for Trafficking in Hydrocodone.

I agree that drug dealers ought to be held accountable for dealing drugs - especially when they target children. But Todd Michael Hannigan, age 42, was no drug dealer.

Assistant Public Defender Robert Power reminded the Court that Hannigan had been suicidal when he was picked up in a park for an open container violation in November, 2009. He had stolen 31 pills from his mother (24.5 grams) and was planning to ingest them. His original intent was to commit suicide at his ex-girlfriend's home (she had recently ended the relationship), but she came home and kicked him out. Law enforcement had been called, and because he was on foot, he was quickly located at a nearby park with a bottle of partially consumed beer.

As one officer was putting him under arrest, a witness in the park notified another officer that the defendant had dropped something on the ground. The second officer retrieved a bag of pills.

A sensible person would think "that's only Possession - not Trafficking!" But the quantity of pills involved has been deemed by the Florida Legislature to assume that if you have that many pills on you without a prescription, you're a dealer.

Mr. Power tried unsuccessfully to argue mitigation. But there was a jury verdict and a minimum mandatory sentence that tied the judge's hands. Apparently, the legislators in Tallahassee have it all figured out. By removing any discretion from the judge's ability to sentence this defendant based on the circumstances of the case, Mr. Hannigan loses his freedom for the full 15 years (no gain time permitted) and the taxpayers will foot the bill.

I would say it's a lose-lose situation all the way around.
Florida Statute 893.135(1)(C) states:
Any person who knowingly sells, purchases, manufactures, delivers, or brings into this state, or who is knowingly in actual or constructive possession of, 4 grams or more of any morphine, opium, oxycodone, hydrocodone, hydromorphone, or any salt, derivative, isomer, or salt of an isomer thereof, including heroin, as described in s. 893.03(1)(b), (2)(a), (3)(c)3., or (3)(c)4., or 4 grams or more of any mixture containing any such substance, but less than 30 kilograms of such substance or mixture, commits a felony of the first degree, which felony shall be known as "trafficking in illegal drugs," punishable as provided in s. 775.082, s. 775.083, or s. 775.084. If the quantity involved:

a. Is 4 grams or more, but less than 14 grams, such person shall be sentenced to a mandatory minimum term of imprisonment of 3 years, and the defendant shall be ordered to pay a fine of $50,000.

b. Is 14 grams or more, but less than 28 grams, such person shall be sentenced to a mandatory minimum term of imprisonment of 15 years, and the defendant shall be ordered to pay a fine of $100,000.

c. Is 28 grams or more, but less than 30 kilograms, such person shall be sentenced to a mandatory minimum term of imprisonment of 25 calendar years and pay a fine of $500,000.

There's got to be a better way to handle cases of this nature. A judge's hands should not be tied by Tallahassee when mental health issues are involved. Send this blog to your senator and representative in the legislature and ask them to re-visit this part of the Statute.

Finally, CourtWatch wonders what compelled the State to go for the jugular on this case.

At the conclusion of today's hearing, the defendant stated "all I wanted was treatment - this won't help me at all." Judge Shea showed obvious concern for the defendant and was clearly frustrated with what the law required him to do.

A Notice of Appeal was filed on his client's behalf by Mr. Power.  But unless the law changes, it looks like Mr. Hannigan is stuck with the full 15 years.

PS: Mr. Hannigan's sentencing scoresheet totaled 91.6 points, 74 of which belong to this offense. Were it not for the minimum mandatory sentence, he would have scored 47.7 months (with eligibility for gain time). Previous convictions were primarily theft related. Defendant has no convictions for crimes of violence.

PPS: It would seem to CourtWatch that the legislature never took into account that someone with mental health issues might use a large quantity of drugs to commit suicide. Dr. Jeffrey Danziger was prepared to testify that the defendant suffered from clinical depression, but because there was no opportunity (by law) to hear mitigating factors, Judge Shea did not hear his report.

Monday, August 16, 2010

Whatever happened to. . . ? #22

Robert James Markward
2009-CF-005220-A (Seminole)
Promote Sexual Performance by Child (50cts); Possess Material Depicting Sexual Conduct by Child (28 cts)
Defendant is an Orange County firefighter who pled guilty to 10 counts of Promoting Sexual Performance by Child. All other counts were dropped. Defendant was sentenced to 5 years sex offender probation. It is unknown if he is still employed by Orange County.

John Allen Murphy
2006-CF-016074-A-O (Orange)
1st Degree Murder; Aggravated Child Abuse; Sexual Battery Child<12 (2cts)
Defendant admitted to slamming his 15mo old daughter into the side of shower stall, tried to revive her & then took her to hospital where she was pronounced dead from blunt force trauma. Defendant pled to 1st Degree Murder and was sentenced to LIFE. The other charges were dismissed.

Robert Ratliff
2010-CF-000348-A-O (Orange)
1st Degree Murder w/Firearm
Defendant initially told deputies his wife had been killed in a home invasion, but later admitted shooting her accidentally after an argument. The couple's two small children were in the residence at the time of the shooting. Defendant pled no contest to 2nd Degree Murder and was sentenced to 30 years in DOC.

Gabriel Castro
2010-CF-004342-A-O (Orange)
Aggravated Stalking w/Credible Threat (5cts)
Victim received several anonymous notes outside & inside her home that the writer was watching her, & threatening to sexually assault her. Defendant is related to victim & allegedly confessed to sending the notes. Victim's request for an injunction was denied by Judge Sally Kest in April, 2010. Defendant pled to 2 counts and was sentenced to 9 months in jail, 4 years supervised probation, to have no contact with the victim, undergo psychosexual evaluation/treatment, 200 hours community service and to complete the following classes: impulse control & anger management.

Otis Gary Ford
2010-CF-007287-A-O (Orange)
False Imprisonment; Battery; Resist Officer - Interfere w/LEO
Defendant allegedly beat the mother of his 4 children so badly that there was bloodspatter on the walls, and threatened to kill her & cut off her head. He has been arrested twice for homicide and pled to battery & aggravated assault. He has twice escaped in the past. Defendant pled to misdemeanor battery and was sentenced to 68 days in jail with credit for 68 days time served, 297 days of probation, Batterer's Intervention Program, and to have no hostile contact with the victim.

Robert Lee Hart
2010-CF-000607-A-O (Orange)
Neglect Child Causing Harm/Disability; Possess Firearm by Convicted Felon; Culpable Negligence
Defendant's son allegedly used defendant's weapon to accidentally shoot his 10-yr old cousin in the mouth. A jury found Hart not guilty of Child Neglect but convicted him of the other two counts. He was sentenced to 8 years in DOC.

Friday, August 13, 2010

If you don't vote, don't complain about your government

Few elected (or appointed) officials have such an immediate and important impact on their community as a judge has. With a single ruling, a judge may enable a crime victim to begin the process of healing, determine what a parent's relationship to their child will be after a breakup with the other parent, protect the rights of a local business, determine how a deceased person's assets will be distributed, or any number of other situations where citizens seek justice. To be an effective judge, one must draw from life, legal and community experiences. His or her rulings must be fair, impartial, and have the utmost respect for the law. His or her demeanor should demonstrate respect and dignity for everyone in their courtroom.

CourtWatch, because we are a 501(c)(3) non-profit, cannot endorse specific candidates for judge in the upcoming elections. But I will share with you some things I've observed about the process and encourage you to become more involved with the electoral process - not just for judges, but for all elected officials.

Having been born and raised "inside the Beltway" of Washington, D.C. it seemed as if EVERYONE was politically active. Maybe it's because my mother was extremely involved in politics. As a child, one of my fondest memories was of the "coffee wagon" at our house on election day. Industrial sized coffee makers brewing in the kitchen and boxes upon boxes of Krispy Kreme donuts stacked on the dining room table. I didn't care for the coffee (except the aroma, of course), but the adults had to keep a watchful eye on those donuts until my sister and I went to school.

During election season, Mom's social life (and ours, when we were young) centered around rallys, picnics, and stuffing envelopes in the basement (child labor laws notwithstanding). Perhaps that's why, as I got older, I found other things to keep me busy (music, boys, hanging out at the mall, and driving around with no particular destination in mind). But my mother, who served for 25 years on the Electoral Board and ran the elections in our city, left me with the lesson that it is important to know who the candidates are, what they stand for, and to be an informed voter.

Hence my frustration with judicial elections here in Florida. Aside from having the candidate's basic biographical information, a photo of them with their family, information about their community involvement and charitable work, and a list of those who have endorsed them, there really is nothing to distinguish them from their opponents. That is, IF they even have an opponent.

In Orange County, there is only one contested race for a Circuit judge position. There are eight Circuit and seven County judges running unopposed.

In Seminole County, things look a bit more interesting.  Three out of six Circuit positions are contested and three incumbents are running unopposed.  There is only one County judge slot open and four candidates have set their sights upon it.

So how does a voter, who wants to make an informed decision, determine for whom they should vote when it comes to electing a non-partisan judge? Do we rely on the Sentinel's Voter Guide? Do we rely on a candidate's list of endorsements? On how "nice" they are when we meet them? On who has the most yard signs?

Unfortunately, that's all we've got at the moment.

Part of CourtWatch's vision is to provide an annual report to the community in which we offer our assessment of how the judges we monitor handle the domestic violence, sexual assault and child abuse cases in their courtroom. Sadly, we have not had the resources to produce such a report yet. But we continue to watch, collect data, and address areas of concern (whether they relate to an individual or a systemic issue) when they are identified.

Each time I vote, I thank those who've sacrificed throughout the generations to secure that privilege for me. And I remember my mom working long hours - before, during and after election day - to make sure the process was properly handled.

Finally, if you don't vote, don't complain about your government.

Monday, August 2, 2010

Whatever happened to . . .? #21

Christopher Chiarello ~ 2010-CF-000614-A-O (Orange County)
Traveling to meet minor for unlawful sexual act
Defendant allegedly solicited what he thought was a 14-yr old girl on the internet for sex.
Defendant pled guilty and was sentenced to 1 day jail, 18 months community control & 5 years probation

Jorge Luis Fontanez ~ 2008-CF-010563-A-O (Orange County)
Control of Animal Disease; Criminal Use of Personal Ident Info; Falsify Papers re: Animal Health; Cruelty to Animals; Contagious Diseased Animals
Defendant pled to first count in 1/09 & sentenced to 31d jail, 3y prob; no possess animals.
He pled last month to violating probation and was sentenced to 364 days in jail with credit for 127 days time served.

Mauricio Dejesus Reyes ~ 2009-CF-007306-A-O (Orange County)
Burglary of Dwelling w/Assault; Kidnap w/Intent to Inflict Harm/Terror w/Weapon; Kidnap w/Intent to Commit Felony; Att Burglary of Dwelling
Defendant pled to having abducted a 4-yr old girl from her bed, duct taped her mouth & intended to sexually assault her in the garage.
Defendant was sentenced to LIFE in the Department of Corrections.

Darin Thomas Christopher ~ 2010-CF-002622-A-O (Orange County)
Battery on Person 65+ yrs old; Cruelty to Animals; Battery DV; ROWOV (2cts)
Defendant allegedly hit victim's dog several times in head & jaw, told her he would rip its ear off & make her eat it, and then threatened to kill her. Dog's jaw was broken & 2 teeth knocked out.
Defendant pled no contest to Cruelty to Animals & one count of Resisting Officer w/o Violence and was sentenced to 13 months Department of Corrections. A Motion to Withdraw Plea is scheduled for August 25th.

Robert A Candela ~ 2009-CF-018202-A-O (Orange County)
Possess Material Depicting Sexual Performance by Child (10cts)
Defendant pled guilty to 5 counts and was sentenced to 60.525 months in the Department of Corrections with credit for 115 days time served + 9 years sex offender probation.

Rhonda Baker (Orange County)
Neglect of Child (4 counts total)
Defendant allegedly left her 13-yr old to take care of her 3 younger siblings for several days while defendant was at her boyfriend's house.
All counts were dropped/abandoned by the State Attorney's Office.

Kimberly Boone ~ 2009-CF-001581-A (Seminole County)
Attempted 1st Degree Murder
Defendant allegedly set her home on fire in an attempt to kill her husband (arson case 2009-CF-002127-A is scheduled for a docket sounding on 8/18) who had threatened to leave her if she embezzled from her employer. When that was unsuccessful, she allegedly shot him and blamed an intruder.
Defendant was found not guilty by the jury of attempted murder in the shooting.