Monday, June 28, 2010

Man who nearly killed his daughter showed not one iota of remorse

Sometimes you just have to shake your head in bewilderment as you come out of the courthouse.

Today was one of those days.

I often hear comments from members of the public that make me think they'd like to nearly crucify a judge or the State Attorney for lenient sentences and plea agreements. Today I wished the jurors who heard this case had been in the courtroom. Because it was their verdict that is responsible for this lenient sentence (though the judge imposed the maximum allowable by law).

Hopefully they'll find this blog.

Chris K Stevens, age 26, was sentenced today for one count of misdemeanor Battery and one count of Neglect of a Child. CourtWatch was the only person in the gallery.

Mr. Stevens was originally charged with Aggravated Child Abuse (maximum penalty 30 years), Attempted Felony Murder (maximum penalty LIFE), and Neglect of a Child (maximum 5 years) relating to an assault on his 8-year old daughter on 10/22/08.

Stevens allegedly beat his daughter so severely that she sustained a fractured vertebra and a bruised liver. He then decided to ship her off to grandma's house in Washington State, contacted his sister to accompany her on the plane, dressed her in a Halloween witch's costume with a veil over her face for the flight, and told her that if anybody asked about her injuries, to tell them she had been in a car wreck. He did not seek professional medical attention for her injuries before the trip.

His sister, while on the flight, asked her to remove the veil and was appalled at her condition (I'd still like to know how TSA and airline personnel in our post-9/11 world didn't think it was suspicious that her face was covered, even though it was Halloween). When they arrived in Washington, the child's aunt and grandmother sought medical attention for her.

The child told her grandmother that her father had done this to her.

A pediatric doctor testified at the trial in April that her injuries were life threatening. A pediatric nurse testified that after she counted 50 individual blows to the child's body, she stopped counting.  Understandably, the child did not come to testify at the trial. Her statements, considered hearsay, could not be heard by the jury. Nor could information about the defendant's arrest in March, 2007 for child abuse, child neglect, and contributing to the delinquency of a minor be heard because he was acquitted by a different jury

In that older case, Stevens allegedly ran out the back door of his home, threw his daughter (the same victim) over a fence, jumped over himself, and held her up as a human shield to prevent law enforcement officers from shooting him in a drug bust.

After several minutes of discussion about the sentencing scoresheet, the hearing centered on the defendant's contention that he was the victim of a home invasion wherein two perpetrators (who have never been identified) beat his daughter because he didn't tell them where his drugs were hidden. He asserted that he had been punched in the stomach (having the wind knocked out of him) and couldn't respond to their demands fast enough to prevent the attack on his daughter. He also testified that he did not call law enforcement at the time because he did not want to get in trouble for having drugs in the house.

There was no evidence presented at trial that he sustained any injuries on the date in question. His sister testified at trial that she never saw any injuries on him.

Judge Marc Lubet, with a hint of sarcasm in his voice, noted "so they beat the child in the face, but not him in the face?" Stevens claimed he went in hiding after the invasion so nobody saw him, to which the judge replied, "That's not true, you went and met your sister." Stevens quickly backpedaled and said that was the only time he came out.

Apparently, there was enough reasonable doubt in the minds of the trial jury for them to convict Stevens only of misdemeanor Battery and felony Child Neglect.

I guess they left their common sense at home when they came for jury duty.

Defense Counsel Beth Bourdon provided a vigorous defense for her client today and spoke eloquently on his behalf. Stevens, who has no convictions on his criminal record (but several cases on  addressed the Court and told the judge about his church involvement, mentoring the troubled youth in his church, his desire to be a productive member of society, to get back to work (the minister's wife is apparently willing to hire him as a barber) and support his family, to do his charity work, and to have a relationship with his father who has cancer. He promised the judge that he could and would successfully complete any and all requirements imposed by probation if it was granted. He promised several times that he would be a law-abiding citizen and would never be back in this position again.

There were no defense witnesses (church members or family members) present to corroborate his promises or the representations he made about his church involvement and their support of him.

Assistant State's Attorney Deborah Barra reminded the Court that the defendant was responsible, either directly or indirectly (if one is to believe the home invasion story), for the child's injuries. Adding to that the fact that he did not seek medical attention for her, Barra asked for the maximum penalty available (1 + 5 years).

Ms. Bourdon requested the minimum sentence per the sentencing guidelines (19.65 months), 3 years probation, community service and a parenting class for her client.

Judge Lubet imposed the maximum penalties (with credit for 342 days time served), to be served consecutively, plus fines of $1,000 and $5,000 respectively, court costs, costs of prosecution, a $1,500 lien for the public defender, and ordered restitution.

The defendant, after hearing the sentence, reminded the judge that he had no criminal history and asked if he might do Community Control instead of prison. He spoke about the financial hardship of the sentence and his desire to support his family and pay the costs. He promised that he would never be in this position again and asked for the opportunity to prove himself, asserting that being a father and a member of the community was the most important thing to him. He spoke again of his church involvement (1 year before being arrested) and his spiritual growth. He promised to be an upstanding citizen. He claimed he doesn't do drugs (although he admitted that he had been around them slightly) and he teaches the kids to stay away from them. He promised this. He promised that.

He exhibited not one iota of remorse for what he did.

He claimed he's been a great father for all his kids (I'm not sure how many there are), except he made a bad decision with having become associated with drugs and the drug culture. He talked again about his work with the youth - teaching them to avoid drugs.

Judge Lubet replied that once he gets out of prison he'll really have something to tell them about and encouraged him to keep up the good work.

This is a young man that has been able to tap dance his way out of trouble for his entire life. He was long on promises today. Only time (and what he does after his 5 years in prison) will tell if he was sincere.
At the outset of today's sentencing hearing, the State made a motion to find the defendant in contempt of court for violating the no contact order that had been imposed. Ms. Barra was prepared to play the CD of his phone call from the jail to his daughter on Christmas Day. More calls are being reviewed for possible prosecution. Each count would potentially be worth an additional 6 months on his sentence.

Sunday, June 27, 2010

Whatever happened to . . . ? #19

Orange County

Tommy Lee Knight
Resist Officer w/o Violence (2 counts)
See previous blogs for details on this defendant.
   Defendant pled and was sentenced to 98 days in jail with credit 98 days time served. He is currently in custody and awaiting trial on three counts of Attempted 1st Degree Murder, Attempted Arson, Stalking and Violation of Pretrial Release Conditions on a DV Case.

Benji Nelson
Derive Support Proceeds of Prostitution (2cts)
Defendant was found guilty by a jury of one count and sentenced by Judge Jeffrey Arnold to 12 years Department of Corrections.

Luis A Quinones
Lewd/Lascivious Battery (4cts); Use of Child in Sexual Performance; Possess Material Depicting Sexual Performancy by Child (8cts)
Defendant allegedly met his 12-year old victim on MySpace (victim allegedly told him she was 19).
   The four Lewd/Lascivious Battery counts were dropped in exchange for a plea to all eight counts of Possess Material Depicting Sexual Performance by a Child. Defendant was sentenced to 3 days jail with credit 3 days time served, 10 years sex offender probation; 200 hours of community service; no unsupervised contact with minors; no contact with victim or her family; not permitted to possess a computer to access MySpace or other internet networking sites.

John Phillip Ramos
L/L Molestation Vic<12 (2cts); L/L Conduct (2cts)
Defendant allegedly molested a young girl in a pool at their apartment complex.
   A jury found Ramos guilty of the lesser included offense of Battery in the first two counts. The other two counts were dismissed. Judge Bob LeBlanc sentenced Ramos to 305 days in jail with credit 305 days time served.

Bryan Deangelo Lee
Aggravated Battery; Tamper w/Witness
See previous blog for details about this case.
   Defendant pled guilty and was sentenced to 270 days in jail with credit 138 days time served; 2 years probation; no hostile contact; complete a parenting class.

Fernando Lopez Hernandez
Burglary of Dwelling w/Assault or Battery; Lewd/Lascivious Molestation Victim <12
Defendant allegedly snuck in to an apartment where he fondled an 11-year old in her bed. The burglary charge was dropped in exchange for a plea to Lewd/Lascivious Molestation.
   Defendant was sentenced to 10 years in prison; 10 years sex offender probation; no contact with victim or her mother.

Michael Russell Combs
Battery (4 counts)
Defendant was an Orange Co jail Corrections Officer who allegedly inappropriately touched female inmates.
   Defendant pled no contest to all counts and was sentenced to 60 days in the Lake County jail with credit 1 day time served; 365 days probation; all counts consecutive; ordered to forfeit his certification as a corrections officer; undergo psychosexual evaluation; have no contact with victims.

Curtis Darrisaw
Resist Officer w/o Violence
Defendant allegedly beat and held his girlfriend (a UCF student) hostage in her apartment for 14 hours - case was transferred from felony court to misdemeanor court because victim declined to participate. 
   Defendant was acquitted by a jury of the Resisting Officer w/o Violence charge.

Leon D Hankins
Attempted 1st Degree Murder; Burglary; Arson of Dwelling; Aggravated Battery w/Deadly Weapon; Aggravated Assault w/Deadly Weapon
Defendant allegedly set fires outside victim's home when he found her there with another man, shot her when she came outside to extinguish them, and then pistol whipped her
   Defendant was found guilty by a jury of all counts and sentenced to LIFE in the Department of Corrections (a 25-year minimum mandatory sentence applies).

Seminole County

Ty Standley
Video Voyeurism by person 24+ yrs old of a child <16 yrs old
Defendant was arrested at Altamonte Mall after being observed taking photos under the skirt of an unsuspecting girl. 
   Defendant was found guilty by a jury and sentenced to 18 months in prison, 2 years Community Control, ordered to undergo mental health evaluation & treatment, to have no unsupervised contact with minors, and to not go to the Sears store in Altamonte Mall.
NOTE: There is no mention on the Clerk's website that Standley's Community Control includes the standard sex offender provisions.

Antonio Alejandro Gonzalez
Cruelty toward child promote sexual performance by child (34 counts); Obscene material possess photo of sexual perf (14 counts)
Defendant pled and was adjudicated guilty of all counts and sentenced to 2 years in prison + 10 years sex offender probation.

Friday, June 25, 2010

Practically "off the hook"

Most people think that misdemeanor offenses aren't as "bad" as felonies, and legally speaking, I suppose they're not. After all, the maximum penalty for a misdemeanor is 1 year in jail and/or a $1,000 fine. But some of the most frightening cases occur in the misdemeanor domestic violence division, which is why CourtWatch is delighted that Orange County has a specialized court for these cases.

Wednesday, however, one defendant was barely given a slap on the wrist by Judge Michael Murphy for terrorizing his wife and her parents. There is also a 2-year old son involved.

Edward Adair Hook III was arrested December 2009 for Aggravated Assault and False Imprisonment for an incident involving his estranged wife and their son, but the case was transferred to misdemeanor court in February, 2010. Two months later, he pled to Improper Exhibition of a Weapon/Firearm and the False Imprisonment charge was dropped. Adjudication was withheld and he was sentenced to 2 days jail with credit for 2 days time served, ordered to undergo mental health evaluation & treatment, to have no hostile contact with his wife, to possess no weapons or ammunition and to complete 12 months of probation.

Hook's estranged wife and mother-in-law successfully obtained injunctions for protection in Lake County (Judge Michael Takac) earlier this month, although the wife's injunction permits "non-violent face to face contact" when exchanging their son for visits (a highly dangerous situation). Court records also note that phone, mail and email contact are permitted for matters relating to the child; also "that the 500 foot provision as it relates to Petitioner's (wife's) residence and place of employment do not apply" (say what?!?! This essentially renders the injunction worth less that the paper it's printed on).  The injunctions also prohibit the possession of firearms. At least the mother-in-law's injunction prohibits him from coming to her home.

Exactly one month after being sentenced in Orange County, on Mother's Day weekend, Mr. Hook violated his probation by (1) possessing a firearm and (2) making harassing phone calls to his in-laws in Lake County. Hook's father contacted the victim (Hook's mother-in-law) to notify her that Hook had come to his home in Seminole County, pointed a gun to his face, demanded he give him all his guns, and advised him that he (the defendant) was going to the victim's residence to "take care of her." Hook allegedly ripped the door to the room where the gun safe was located off its hinges. His father was concerned about his son's mental state and he was Baker Acted in Seminole County.

Mr. Hook's Violation of Probation hearing was Wednesday in Judge Murphy's courtroom.

His estranged wife testified that his physical abuse of her began when she was 7 months pregnant with their son, that he had made threatening calls and left threatening messages on facebook, he had stalked her, and that he had pulled a gun on her and their 2-year old son (the original offense for which he was arrested in December).

His mother-in-law testified that Hook told her he would do anything to get to his son.

His father-in-law testified that he now sleeps in the front room of their home to make sure the house is secure. He also told the Court that Hook told him to remember what happened to their neighbor's daughter & grandchild who were murdered in a domestic violence incident, saying "these things happen." The in-laws' neighbor happens to be a Lake County deputy sheriff whose daughter and grandchild who were killed by her husband.

The defendant's estranged wife testified that when she once asked him why he wants to harm innocent people, he replied "so my son can see me on TV."

Clearly, this defendant is a danger to his estranged wife, their child, and her parents.

Assistant State's Attorney Alison Kerestes vigorously argued for the judge to sentence Mr. Hook to 12 months in jail.

In his closing argument, Defense Counsel Robert Fisher told the judge that his client did not get to see his son on Father's Day (he was in custody).

Judge Michael Murphy, before he sentenced the defendant, stated to the victim "No one will be happy with the sentencing." He indicated that he believed, with his experience as a prosecutor, defense attorney and as a judge, that 80 days was appropriate. Hook was also given credit for 37 days he has already served. If he earns gaintime (also known as time off for good behavior), he could be out in less than a month.

Eighty days?

If any case deserved the maximum penalty (or at least close to the maximum penalty), CourtWatch thinks this is it. It should not matter that he will face charges in another county. What should matter is that he blatantly broke the law and needs to learn that there will be consequences for doing so.

In addition to violating the injunctions from Lake County and violating his Orange County probation, he made threats to kill and then acted upon those threats. Thank God the defendant's father called the victims and cooperated with law enforcement to get him hospitalized. Otherwise there very easily could have been a Mother's Day Massacre in Lake County.

CourtWatch is extremely disappointed that our misdemeanor DV court, something that the Domestic Violence Commission worked hard to create, did not send a stronger message to this perpetrator.

However, we are delighted that the different law enforcement agencies responded efficiently and effectively to protect the victims, to get help for the defendant, and to hold him accountable for his actions. Kudos to Lake, Seminole and Orange County law enforcement, the Orange County State Attorney and Orange County Probation for working well together. Hopefully, the court in Lake County won't let Mr. Hook "off the hook" for violating their injunction (also a misdemeanor charge).

Monday, June 21, 2010

What a waste of taxpayer dollars

I'm all for punctuality, particularly when a courtroom full of people is waiting for you. But having been present to monitor cases at the time noted on the docket, and having to wait several minutes (sometimes nearly an hour) for a judge or an attorney to arrive, I've come to expect that punctuality isn't always to be expected. In fact, I'm usually surprised when a case commences at its appointed time.

I received the following email about what happened to a DV case this morning.
I wanted to make you aware of a situation we had this morning for a domestic violence case that was set for trial. The victim confirmed she would be present for court this morning. She is extremely cooperative and very much in fear of defendant. The defendant and his mother have been threatening the victim to the point of a new criminal report being filed last week. The victim had arranged to meet with the victim advocate outside of the courthouse this morning to assure she would not be alone and to be escorted to a private witness room.

The victim was not present in the courtroom when the judge promptly called the case at 8:30am. The judge was very upset and forced the Assistant State's Attorney to drop the case (he plans to refile). It was later determined that the victim was waiting in the extra long security line to get into the courthouse and was here the entire time.
Given the fact that it is rare to have a victim of domestic violence willing to "cooperate" with the prosecution of their perpetrator to this extent, I am appalled that the judge forced the prosecutor's hand. If you've ever attempted to enter the Orange County Courthouse on a Monday at 8:30am, you'll know that the line is often out the door (a couple weeks ago, it even went all the way across the courtyard and to the curb where the news trucks park).

Is it too much to ask to give the prosecutor enough time to contact the victim to ascertain their estimated time of arrival? CourtWatch doesn't think so. Is the judge oblivious to the plight of the citizens (victims, defendants, attorneys, jurors and others) who are trying to get inside the courthouse on time?

We're not even going to talk about the mass of humanity that, once they're inside the building, has to wait for one of six elevators to cram into for their trip to the proper floor.

Not only were there about a dozen cases on the docket for 8:30, jury selection takes at least an hour to accomplish (once the jury panel is in the courtroom). So now the victim, who undoubtedly had to get emotionally geared up for her day in court, has to go back to square one and wait for her case to be refiled and processed for who knows how many months? Why did the judge want the victim there before the jury selection process had even begun?

What a waste of taxpayer dollars.

It reminds me of the Sorry! game our family often plays. You move your piece all the way around the board until you're nearly Home and one of your opponents draws the Sorry! card, knocking you back to the Start and taking your spot on the board.

Sorry! Ms. Victim. You won't have your day in court today.

By the way, I've not named this judge because more than one is guilty of doing exactly the same thing.

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Judge: This is a heartbreaking situation

Background Info

Michelle Wheeler, initially charged with 2nd Degree Murder in the January 2009 death of her boyfriend of approximately 5 years Jerry Cisco, pled to Manslaughter in March. Her sentencing hearing was yesterday, and I left the courtroom with a renewed appreciation for how tough a judge's job can be. See also my earlier blogs about this case.

Cisco and Wheeler had a tumultous relationship that involved alcohol abuse and violence by both parties. Cisco had been arrested on at least 5 occasions for domestic battery against Wheeler. The Court heard testimony about the injuries she had sustained over the course of their relationship: cuts with a knife, numerous bruises, broken bones, and a busted eardrum. A search of the Orange County Clerk's records show 11 cases against Cisco going back to 2004 for the following charges:
  • 3/22/04: Resisting Officer w/o Violence
    Case nolle prossed (dropped).
  • 3/25/04: Driving Under the Influence
    Adjudicated guilty - 1 year probation.
  • 4/28/05: Assault (2 counts)
    Pled no contest - adjudicated guilty 8 days jail w/credit 8 days time served; 160 days probation; no contact with victims (two of Wheeler's family members) - Cisco subsequently violated this probation in December 2005 and served 37 days jail.
  • 5/14/05: Battery DV
    No Information (the formal charging document) was filed by State. Cisco violated terms of Home Confinement in this case, but since no Information was filed, there were no sanctions imposed.
  • 6/24/05: Battery on Law Enforcement Officer; Threats Against Public Servant
    Pled no contest and was adjudicated guilty both counts - sentenced to 27 days in jail w/credit 27 days time served; 48 months probation (concurrent with other case); 100 hours community service; anger management seminar; substance abuse evaluation; apology letter. Cisco was subsequently found in violation of probation June 2007 and served 171 days in jail in spite of Wheeler's declination of prosecution.
  • 6/28/05: False 911 Calls; False Reports of Commmission of Crimes
    Pled no contest and adjudicated guilty of both counts. Sentenced to 160 days w/credit 160 days time served.
  • 7/11/05: Burglary of Dwelling w/Assault or Battery; Aggravated Stalking w/Credible Threat; Battery; Criminal Mischief
    Burglary charge was dropped, pled to all other charges and sentenced to 1 year jail w/credit 101 days time served; 42 months probation; anger management seminar; and 75 hours community service. Cisco was subsequently found in violation of probation June 2007 and served 210 days in jail in spite of Wheeler's declination of prosecution.
  • 11/17/05: Aggravated Battery w/Deadly Weapon; Aggravated Assault w/Deadly Weapon; Aggravated Battery on Pregnant Person
    No Information was filed by the State.
  • 6/20/06: Felony Battery
    Pled no contest & adjudicated guilty. Sentenced to 64 days jail w/credit 64 days time served, ordered to have no hostile contact with Wheeler (who had filed a declination of prosecution).
  • 7/4/07: Battery
    No Information was filed by the State.
  • 12/28/07: Battery DV
    No Information was filed by the State.
Wheeler's criminal record for the same timeframe:
  • 12/14/04: Battery
    Case nolle prossed.
  • 10/21/06: Disorderly Intoxication
    No Information was filed by the State.
  • 9/28/08: Battery (4 counts); Disorderly Intoxication
    Pled no contest to one count and sentenced to 60 days jail with credit 42 days time served; substance abuse treatment while in jail. Other counts were nolle prossed.
  • 1/16/09: 2nd Degree Murder (victim: Jerry Cisco)
    Pled to Manslaughter w/Deadly Weapon.
In addition to the above, Wheeler was sentenced in 2004 to 18 months prison for violating probation in a 2000 case where she pled to Burglary of a Conveyance. She was released from custody in August, 2004. This case occurred before her relationship with Cisco began.

Testimony Provided

Both sides of the courtroom had half a dozen or so family members present. The victim's family made the trip from Kentucky.

Media representatives were not in attendance.

Ms. Wheeler's mother, father and sister, who have been caring for the couple's children (ages 3 & 4), spoke on her behalf. They expressed their apologies to Cisco's family for the loss of their loved one. In addition to testimony about the victim's alcoholism and injuries inflicted upon Wheeler, they told the judge about the defendant's own alcohol abuse and did not sugarcoat her criminal history. Wheeler's sister testified that she and her husband had been very close friends with Cisco, but that after Cisco and Wheeler's relationship began, he became violent and threatened to kill Wheeler on several occasions. She told the judge that she and her mother had taken Wheeler to the hospital on several occasions after altercations with Cisco. She also stated that she always thought that the situation would be reversed, expecting that her sister would end up dead.

Dr. Allen Burns, court-ordered psychiatrist (one of three who had evaluated the defendant), testified that she was not insane at the time of the offense. He stated that she suffers/suffered from schizoaffective disorder, bipolar disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder, panic attacks, and had intermittent auditory hallucinations.  In addition to a history of being a victim of domestic violence, she was a victim of sexual abuse in the past. He found that she did not meet the criteria for involuntary hospitalization and that she was no imminent risk to herself or to others. He recommended that she continue on the medications that have stabilized her since her incarceration, that she undergo treatment for her alcohol dependency, and have therapy for the symptoms of PTSD.

Defense Counsel Chung-Wook Kim then called Michelle Wheeler to testify. She told the judge about the afternoon that led up to the fatal event, but never once spoke about the actual incident (in the bond hearing last year, there was testimony that Cisco had threatened to kill her several times throughout the day and once he grabbed a knife, she begged for her life, convinced him to drop it, and then picked it up and stabbed him). She told the judge that she had personally contacted law enforcement 5 times for help during their relationship, and her neighbors and sister had also called on several occasions.

When asked why she didn't leave the relationship, her reply was something every domestic violence advocate hears from victims - he promised to stop hitting her, she feared for her life if she did leave (there were threats to kill her and burn down the house), and she wanted to keep her home intact for their children.

As she read a prepared statement to Cisco's family, Judge Adams suddenly seemed to lose interest in what the defendant had to say. He began to look away as he searched for something in file drawers and on top of the bench. It struck both of the courtwatchers as disrespectful. It was the only time he did not appear to give the person testifying his full attention.  Wheeler apologized to Cisco's family, said she never meant to hurt him and that she still loved him. She told of the pain and grief she is experiencing in losing both Jerry and not seeing her children.

She told the judge that she has completed all the programs offered to her at the jail and that she is pursuing her GED. She indicated that she is willing and able to comply with any conditions of release that might be imposed upon her. She admitted that she had injured Cisco in the past, but that any violence she perpetrated upon him was a result of him being the aggressor.

Assistant State's Attorney Les Hess elicited testimony about the defendant's previous record (above) as well as some older incidents from the 1990s. He focused on the fact that their relationship often involved "mutual combat." Wheeler also told the Court that every time she had had a brush with law enforcement, alcohol had been a factor.

The most compelling witness was the victim's older sister, Trina Penny, who read a victim impact statement that was well written and delivered with passion. As one who has lost a child to murder, I saw myself in the family's shoes, particularly those of the victim's mother, as they described the shock and grief they experienced when learning of Cisco's death, as well as the struggle they face to accept the reality of the situation in those first few days and weeks.

Her anger at the defendant was evident, yet I was surprised that neither she nor her mother (who called in from North Carolina), were willing to admit that Cisco had played any part in the violence in the relationship. She idealized her little brother, never once conceding that he had a problem with alcohol. She talked about Wheeler's "questionable children" as if to imply that Cisco was not their father. She blamed Wheeler for causing her brother to lose hope, his health, integrity and enthusiasm for life. She accused Wheeler for being responsible for isolating him from his family, ruining him financially, and claimed that he was unable to move back to Kentucky because he feared for the safety of their children. She asserted that her brother was a victim of domestic violence, but because he is a man, there are no domestic violence groups supporting his side of the story (I'll write more about that tomorrow). She told the judge that Wheeler deserves to die for what she did.

Attorney Arguments

The Defense requested a Downward Departure from the sentencing scoresheet of 10.5 years because of several mitigating factors per Florida Statute 921.0026(2):
(c) The capacity of the defendant to appreciate the criminal nature of the conduct or to conform that conduct to the requirements of law was substantially impaired.

(d) The defendant requires specialized treatment for a mental disorder that is unrelated to substance abuse or addiction or for a physical disability, and the defendant is amenable to treatment.

(f) The victim was an initiator, willing participant, aggressor, or provoker of the incident.

(g) The defendant acted under extreme duress or under the domination of another person.
The judge needed only to find that one of the above applies.
From where we sat (in the cheap seats), I would have to say that both (f) and (g) above would apply, perhaps even (c), but there was no testimony about whether she was impaired, even though she did indicate they had both been drinking that night.

The State requested no Downward Departure, claiming that this is not the first time that Wheeler had faced prison time and lied (she initially claimed Cisco had committed suicide when law enforcement was called to the scene).

The Sentence

Judge Adam's first comment was that "This is a heartbreaking situation." He recognized that everyone in the courtroom was suffering as a result of what transpired on January 16, 2009. He commented that both parties contributed to the environment and that alcoholism takes a terrible toll on everyone involved. He did not find it surprising that the defendant initially lied about what happened because addicts often lie to themselves and others about their addiction as well as the situations in which they find themselves.

The judge did not find grounds to downward depart, stating that Wheeler was a willing participant. The notion that Wheeler willingly participated in the violence indicates a terrible misunderstanding of the dynamics of domestic violence. I'll explain why tomorrow.

The sentencing guidelines called for a minimum 10.5 year sentence. She could have received a maximum of 30 years.

Judge Adams ordered that Wheeler serve 20 years in DOC plus an additional 10 years of probation upon release. She was ordered to consume no alcohol and participate in substance abuse treatment with random urinalysis. She was given credit for the 1 year 150 days time served.

As he announced his sentence, Wheeler turned around with a panic-stricken look on her face and asked her sister to take care of her children. Whether or not Cisco's family has any interest in them is unclear.

It was indeed a heartbreaking (nearly 2-hour) hearing for everyone concerned.

Further comments to follow.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Whatever happened to . . . ? #18

Orange County Cases

Jeovanni Bonanno
Aggravated Assault w/Intent to Commit Felony; Armed Burglary; Grand Theft
Defendant allegedly threatened to kill a pregnant neighbor & her 6-yr old son.
Case was nolle prossed (dismissed)

Brucell James Brumfield
Exposure of Sexual Organs; Indecent Exposure
Defendant allegedly exposed himself to children at the Boca Club Apartments & asked one child to come over to him.
Defendant pled no contest to Exposure of Sexual Organs and was adjudicated guilty. Sentenced to 30 days in jail + 11 months probation and is required to complete a psych evaluation and any recommended treatment.

Dennis Joel Rivera
2008-CF-016850-A-O (offense date 11/6/08)
Aggravated Child Abuse; Attempt Cause Bodily Injury During Felony
Pled no contest to count 1 and sentenced to 10 years Department of Corrections + 2 years probation; Batterer's Intervention Class

2008-CF-016883-A-O (offense dates 10/1/08, 10/3/09 & 10/19/08)
False Imprisonment; Battery (3 counts)
Case nolle prossed as part of global plea (see above)

2008-CF-017574-A-O (offense date 11/19/08)
Attempted Felony Murder reduced to Causing Bodily Injury During Felony
Victim was defendant's girlfriend's 18-month old son
Case nolle prossed as part of global plea (see above)

Nedal Ismail Awad
Solicitation of Minor via Computer; Protection of Minors/Obscenity; Poss of material depicting child in sexual peformance (2cts); Aggravated Child Neglect
Defendant allegedly gave cell phone to 11-yr old daughter of family friend & then sent her sexual text messages.
Defendant was found guilty by jury of count 1, acquitted of count 2, pled no contest to Count 3 and no action was taken on counts 4 & 5.
Judge LeBlanc sentenced defendant to 1 year 1 day in Department of Corrections with credit 33 days time served + 3 years probation.
There's no indication that defendant's probation requires him to register as a sexual offender. Awad has previous arrests in Orange County (2007-2009) for Aggravated Assault, Battery, Follow/Harass/Cyberstalk, Incest (2 counts), and Sexual Battery.

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Adversity in the courtroom

As I was training two new volunteers today, we happened upon an interesting Motion to Suppress in Judge Richard Conrad's courtroom. The defendant was charged with Grand Theft Motor Vehicle, Possession of Burglary Tools and Petit Theft. Typically not the sort of case we would pay much attention to. But we were waiting for some other cases to be heard, so we watched this hearing.

Judge Conrad has a razor sharp sense of humor, and he's not afraid to pull it out from time to time. Today was no exception.

When an attorney addresses the judge, they are expected to stand up. It is a sign of respect.

Defense Counsel Whitney Boan got a protocol lesson from the judge when she persistently remained seated during her numerous objections to questions asked by prosecutor Mark Interlicchio of his witnesses.  Judge Conrad good-naturedly quipped, with tongue in cheek and a wry smile on his face, "I can't hear you while you're seated." He reminded me of a professor that was coaching his student to learn a valuable lesson.

She appeared to get the message after he told her the second time.

Mr. Interlicchio, in his closing argument, got flustered when the judge peppered him with questions about why the evidence in question should not be suppressed. It was apparent that he was unprepared to adequately defend his position. After a few moments of waiting for the prosecutor to form a coherent answer to one of his questions, Judge Conrad (again with tongue in cheek and the same smile on his face) told him "The US Supreme Court would have a heart attack listening to you."

Embarrassing? Yes, undoubtedly it was. But perhaps he'll be better prepared next time.

Sometimes adversity is what you need to face in order to become successful.   -Zig Ziglar

Saturday, June 5, 2010

Whatever Happened to . . . ? #17


Belinda Holley Mills (left) 2010-MM-002717-A-O
Karen D Cerezo (right) 2010-MM-002717-B-O
Battery DV
Mills (a former OCSO deputy) and her friend Cerezo, allegedly assaulted Mills' ex-boyfriend who is Cerezo's ex-husband.
Both defendants were referred to the pretrial diversion program. If they complete what is required of them (which usually includes community service and/or any classes deemed appropriate), their cases will be dismissed.

Price Barthelus
Procuring Person<18 for Prostitution; Forcing/Coercing Another to Prostitution; Sex Trafficking; Assault
Defendant allegedly brought a teenage runaway from Miami to Orlando to sell her for sex.
No Information Notice was filed by the State Attorney's Office (charges dropped/abandoned).


Tanya Culver
2010-CF-000943-A (felony) reduced to misdemeanor
Aggravated Assault w/Deadly Weapon reduced to
Improper Exhibition of Weapon/Firearm; Resist Officer w/o Violence; Disorderly Intoxication
Defendant is an Apopka police officer who allegedly discharged her weapon at her husband. She subsequently showed up at a bar where he was after being released and was arrested for violation of pretrial release conditions in 2010MM003274A.
     She pled no contest to all misdemeanor counts in this case and was adjudicated guilty, sentenced to 1 year probation and ordered to not possess nor consume alcohol or controlled substances, undergo a mental health screening, have no violent contact with the victim, write apology letters to the law enforcement officer, complete a 12 week anger management class, a victim awareness class and a substance abuse class.
     In 2010MM003274A, she pled no contest to Violation of Pretrial Release Conditions in a Domestic Violence case and was sentenced to 12 months probation & to complete a chemical dependency evaluation.

Vincent Marchese
Cruelty Toward Child; Agg Flee/Attempt to Elude Causing Injury/Damage; Agg Assault Upon LEO; DWLS; Reckless Driving Causing Damage; Leave Scene of Crash w/Damage
Defendant allegedly abducted a friend's 3-yr old while she was receiving medical care at Altamonte Hospital - a 5 hour search resulted in his apprehension in Maitland. Defendant pled no contest and was sentenced to 46 months DOC in Orange Co for Att Burg of Occupied Dwelling & Petit Theft.
Defendant pled to all counts except Cruelty Toward Child (which was dismissed) and was sentenced in Seminole County to 6 years in the Department of Corrections, concurrent to any other sentences being served.

Thursday, June 3, 2010

No jail time for man who nearly killed a puppy

Today's trial for Frank Nibbs, age 50, who was charged with felony animal cruelty, was resolved during a plea to the bench before Judge Bob LeBlanc this morning.

Nibbs allegedly entered the property of Sylvia Brantley last October and used a six-foot construction level to beat her four-pound Pekingnese puppy in front of her and her 13-year-old son. The dog, Max, was beaten unconscious, sustained a broken jaw, lost several teeth and an eye.

A plea conference on May 14th was held and the State's offer was for Nibbs to be adjudicated guilty, serve 6 months jail plus 3 years probation, pay restitution, and to complete an anger management class.

Nibbs faced a maximum penalty of 5 years in prison for this offense.

The evidence in the case included first-hand witness accounts, officer depositions, victim testimony and veterinary assessments of the dog's injuries, from which he is still recuperating.

The judge undercut Assistant State Attorney Elizabeth Baird's offer, which included 6 months jail, by ordering only a 3-year probationary sentence, despite emotional testimony from the victim about the impact on her child and her pet. At least Nibbs, who had no criminal record here in the US, was adjudicated guilty of felony cruelty, so he is now a convicted felon. It is unknown how long ago he moved to the US from the Virgin Islands (I couldn't hear whether he came from the US or British Virgin Islands - if from the US, the criminal records search should include any history).
After hearing Ms. Brantley's emotional testimony, and in spite of his apparent disgust with Nibbs' crime, Judge LeBlanc still refused to order the defendant to serve any time in jail, citing his lack of criminal history.
The family was in such fear following the traumatic incident that they moved from the home they've occupied for 13 years. Ms. Brantly testified that her son continues to have nightmares about the incident. She also believes that if she had not intervened, the dog would have been killed.
In addition to probation, Nibbs was ordered to complete an anger management class, an animal care class, pay restitution and a $2500 fine, have no contact with the victim or her family, and own no pets while on probation.
It is disappointing, however, that Nibbs will not see any jail time for assaulting a helpless pet in front of a child. But then again, it's disappointing that our court system fails to put people in jail for assaulting their children or their spouse/partner in front of children too.
WFTV Coverage