The Palm Beach Post from West Palm Beach, Florida on December 1, 1997 · Page 12
Get access to this page with a Free Trial
Click to view larger version

A Publisher Extra Newspaper

The Palm Beach Post from West Palm Beach, Florida · Page 12

West Palm Beach, Florida
Issue Date:
Monday, December 1, 1997
Page 12
Start Free Trial

Page 12 article text (OCR)

12A THE PALM BEACH POST MONDAY, DECEMBER 1, 1997 A CRIME WITHOUT PUNISHMENT 'All the rules of the state attorney and the chief judge end 20 miles down Southern Boulevard. It's a different world past the 20-mile bend. ' BARRY KRISCHER, State Attorney Who's taking advantage of lax sentencing? A gallery of criminals NAME: Melvin Grase CHARGE: Armed robbery SENTENCE; Six months in jail and P. O H ill ii .5 M Li 8 oo STEPHANIE WELSHStafT Photographer 1 1 Belle Glades' Southwest Fifth Avenue on a busy night can be a magnet for trouble. Lack of jury trials at problem probation, compared to 12 years under state guidelines. He was arrested on charges including attempted murder, battery and assault with a gun. NAME: William Smith CHARGE: Aggravated battery with a gun SENTENCE: 33 months in a yout,h- tui orrenaer program; guidelines called for three years in prison. Smith got in a fight with two other people on Sept. 5, 1995, then shot one with a rifle. Smith hid in a ditch across from a bar and waited for his victim for two hours, police said. He then shot him and another man when they came out of the bar. NAME: Barry Lee Peterson CHARGE: Attempted murder SENTENCE: Peterson served eight months in county jail after prosecutors reduced charges to aggravated battery; guidelines called for three years. Peterson shot a 17-year-old boy and shot at a Belle Glade police officer during a shooting ; spree in 1994. He has been arrested more than 40 times, including twice for attempted mur-,der. 1 NAME: Johnny Tillman I CHARGE: Attempted murder ; SENTENCE: Tillman pleaded guilty to armed robbery in 1996 after prosecutors reduced his charges. He was sentenced to 18 months in a youth prison; guidelines called for six years in prison. ; Tillman violated . his probation with a conviction for grand theft. He was sentenced to more probation. ' NAME: Lavincent Osborne ; CHARGE: Manslaughter SENTENCE: Time served and pro bation after negotiating down from second-degree murder in 1994. He has been arrested at least 18 times, including charges of attempted murder, man slaughter, assaulting police officers, two shootings and possessing a sawed-off shotgun. He has served just five months in prison for a 1991 attempted murder. He is awaiting trial on charges of first-degree murder. About this series Today: Criminals in the Glades almost never go to prison. Prosecutors and judges agree that's not likely to change unless the state resumes holding jury trials in Belle Glade. Tuesday: Prosecutors prefer to make plea bargains rather than put children who have been molested through the trauma of trials. That means most molesters don't go to prison, even if they've I -J . f X I Z- ml O- f I '. ' ! IV" 'J Judge Michael Miller, who volunteered to work in the Glades, says a mix of common sense and compassion is needed in the poor region. Whether you're lenient or not is like beauty, it's in the eye of the beholder. I really just try to do what I think is right, that's all.' JUDGE MICHAEL MILLER heart of STEPHANIE WELSHStaff Photographer and attempted murder cases since 1994, more than half of the victims had criminal records, and many picked the fights that led to the assault. While police reports are sometimes sketchy, they indicate that either the victim or the defendant was drunk or under the influence of drugs in at least three-fourths of the cases. Under those circumstances, prosecutors have trouble finding victims and witnesses willing or able to travel more than an hour to West Palm Beach for depositions and trials. Defense lawyers and defendants know that and are usually able to wangle good deals from Fulton or take their case directly to Miller. Then there , are the economic and cultural differences. While Miller may be tolerant, his views mimic those of some community leaders. "I do prefer to have someone like Judge Miller, who is a product of the Glades and understands the problems of a rural community and the African-American community," South Bay Mayor Clarence Anthony said. "There are some problems, obviously, but these are our kids, and nobody wants to see them go to prison if there are ways to help them." A Belle Glade police cruiser rolls down Southwest Fifth Avenue on a hot September night, weaving among scores of people, all of them black, most of them men. Some weakly conceal 40-ounce bottles of beer and malt liquor, but most just ignore the police car and continue talking and drinking. A streetlight on the corner in front of Shady's Lounge and the burned-out Hole in the Wall Bar hasn't worked in months. "Every time they fix it, someone just shoots it out that night," an officer said. On both sides of the street, dice games slow briefly as the car passes, but nobody seems too concerned. The crack dealers on the corner are a bit more discreet, but the officer is not fooled. - "If they flaunt it, then we'll usually get out of the car and talk to them," a shift supervisor said. "But what are you going to do? This is their entertainment. They have no air conditioning or television, and they just don't have the money to go to a movie. This is all they have." As the cruiser continues, the officer educates a visitor. "See that guy right there with the bucket?" he asks. "He brings that out there so he can piss into it without losing his spot or his customers. He can make a couple of hundred bucks selling his crack, so he's not about to give up a good spot to go find a bathroom. It's disgusting, but this is a whole different world out here." 8 months for shooting at officer It was into this world that Belle Glade police officer James Eddy chased Barry Lee Peterson in 1994. Peterson, who has been arrested more than 40 times in the past two decades on charges ranging from attempted murder to dealing cocaine, had just shot a man after an argument. I Eddy and his colleagues followed Peterson down an alley but briefly lost him. When Eddy emerged from the alley, Peterson went down to one knee, aimed his gun directly at the officer and then fired, police said. The .25-caliber bullet missed the officer and lodged in a tree directly behind him. Belle Glade police charged Peterson with attempted first-degree murder, assault on an officer and a half-dozen other crimes. Seven months later, Peterson agreed to a plea bargain. Prosecutors dropped the attempted murder charge, and he spent eight months in the county jail. ' "Of course it made me mad when I found out what had happened," said Eddy, now an officer in Lantana. "It got frustrat ing working out there, but that's all I knew. Coming to the coast gave me a whole different perspective. It showed me how things should work." Only the return of jury trials in the Glades will ensure that criminals go to prison and receive longer sentences, lawyers and judges say. They also agree that it probably is never going to happen. ! The 1989 Supreme Court ruling followed a challenge by defense attorney Nelson Bailey, now a county court judge. Until then, the Glades drew its juries from the predominantly black western end of the county, while West Palm Beach juries came from the mostly white coast. ' ' The court ruled that the setup was racially biased. There has not been a jury trial in Belle Glade since. Now, jurors from all parts of the county are called to the main courthouse in West Palm Beach. To reinstate jury trials in the Glades, jurors would have to be pulled from all over the county, something several judges and lawyers called "political suicide." i "If you start putting people in Boca on buses and shipping them to the Glades, you'd have a revolt," Krischer said. "I,t just isn't a realistic solution. This is the only way, although I agree that it isn't perfect." ; Chief Judge Walter Colbath said it might be time to take a closer look at the Glades. ! "To be honest, I don't think anybody realized the downward departure rate was as high as it is," Colbath said. "I do know that you can't blame Mike, because he's a good judge doing the best he can. ! "But obviously, there is a problem out there," he said. "You know how sometimes people say there are no easy solu tions? I'm afraid that in this case, tere may be just no solutions at all." SENTENCES From 1A One judge handles all criminal, civil, misdemeanor, family and probate cases. Two prosecutors and three public defenders try to keep up with the overwhelming load of felonies and misdemeanors, which reaches several hundred a month about twice what judges on the coast face. As a result, even the most serious crimes can go unpunished. Lavicent Osborne, one of two men charged with killing Bell, 19, in August, had been convicted of manslaughter reduced from second-degree murder three years earlier. In May 1994, he received probation and time served for killing one man and wounding another in a shootout. He had previous convictions for attempted murder, attacking a police officer, robbery, carrying a sawed-off shotgun and shooting at people. He and co-defendant Arthur Key are awaiting jury trials in West Palm Beach. "What's going on here is hurting the people of Belle Glade so bad. It really is killing us," said Police Chief Michael Miller, who is no relation to the circuit judge, Michael Miller. "People who live here care about the community, and they want to see things improve. But the way it is set up, they've taken away any chance to make it better." Jury pool ruling main obstacle The biggest obstacle to improvement is a 1989 Supreme Court decision halting jury trials in Belle Glade, Krischer and Judge Miller said. The ruling orders juries to be selected from the entire county. That forced judges to move all jury trials 50 miles to the West Palm Beach courthouse. That means every police officer, witness, victim and attorney also has to make the trek for depositions, hearings and trials. And because most of the victims are poor and without transportation or immigrants in town for seasonal farm work few bother. "Defense lawyers know the system," Chief Miller said. "All they have to do is yell for a jury trial and the case starts to fall apart. That's the problem, not the judge." But Judge Miller contributes to the pattern of lenient sentences. Court files show an escalating struggle between Judge Miller and the state attorney's office. Miller routinely rules against prosecutors on everything from setting bond to granting furloughs to county jail inmates, the files show. Miller, who was appointed to the bench in 1985, disputes accusations that he's lenient and points to the system's limitations, such as a lack of jury trials and a transient population. Most important, Miller said, a mix of common sense and compassion is needed in the poor region. "Things are a lot more personal out here, and part of that is you don't throw everybody in prison all the time," Miller said. "The system is supposed to be fair to everyone the victim and the person accused. "Whether you're lenient or not is like beauty, it's in the eye of the beholder," Miller said. "I really just try to do what I think is right, that's all." It is difficult to find anyone here who is critical of Judge Miller and impossible to find anyone who will put his or her name to the criticism. "Judge Myier is very fond of the Glades and cares about the people out here," said Bill Mathis, a city commissioner and former Belle Glade police chief. "I've known Mike for a long time, and I know him to wear a white hat and do the right things for the community," Mathis said. "He used to be stricter, but the problem is with the whole system he's stuck with, not with Mike." Judge returned to his roots Miller volunteered to serve in Belle Glade in 1990, returning to the area where he once worked as a prosecutor and as a private defense lawyer. Miller runs an old-style Southern courthouse, far different than the rigid, almost regal atmosphere of his colleagues' courtrooms in West Palm Beach. His top shirt button is usually open and his tie loosened under his black robe, and the judge often calls lawyers by their first names. When a defense lawyer wanted to show a videotape of a drunken driver during a recent nonjury trial, Miller invited everyone in the courtroom to circle around the television and jokingly apologized for not having popcorn. Miller has a keen sense of the economic and social problems facing the community and relies on common sense and his own judgment in deciding cases, his backers say. A stricter, less compassionate judge would mean more requests for jury trials and, ultimately, no justice at all in Belle Glade, many say. "Obviously, nothing's perfect, but I don't see that there's anything wrong with Judge Miller or what's going on here," Pahokee Police Chief Carmen Sal-vatore said. "I know our numbers are bad, but it's wrong to compare us with the coast. It's a different world here in the Glades." Fine line separates victims By any standard, the problems facing Miller and prosecutor Douglas Fulton are daunting. For starters, many of the assault, stabbing and shooting victims don't evoke much sympathy. Inf7 aggravated battery

Get full access with a Free Trial

Start Free Trial

What members have found on this page