Saturday, June 18, 2005

Mayhem in Miami -- and the Marlins, too

If you think Michael Jackson got one over on the legal system, let me tell you about a trial I once covered.

This case involved exotic locales, courtroom chaos — and baseball, too. Pretty much a trifecta of glory for this reporter.

The Flint Community Schools thought they were getting rid of a problem when they allowed a music teacher to quietly resign after being accused of molesting students in 1987. This saved the district from getting involved in messy teacher tenure hearings and airing dirty laundry.

Unfortunately, the teacher — I’ll avoid using names here — moved to Miami, got a job in a school there and allegedly picked up right where he left off.

This time, the girls involved thought they would be better off going to the police instead of their school administrators.The teacher was charged with multiple felonies, with a 1997 trial in Dade County.

Normally the Flint Journal would not send a reporter on the road to cover such a thing. But there were a number of Flint school people on the witness list, and I could save the paper money by crashing with my folks, who live about two hours north.

It was pretty nasty stuff. The guy married one of his former students. And several young women took the stand, each with a similar story. They either didn’t have a father, or had one that was too busy to spend too much time home. The teacher would start to build up trust with the girl and her family, become sort of a surrogate father and before too long the molestation would start.

Seemed like a pretty iron-clad case to these untrained eyes. The teacher was allegedly having and affair with not only a student, but her mother, too. Prosecutors broke out a tape of a telephone conversation between the teacher and one of the girls, pledging his love and announcing his plans to marry her. One of the Flint witnesses grew up to become a prosecutor and sounded pretty credible to me.

The weekend break came as things were wrapping up. I always try to work a baseball adventure into every road trip — and the first week in February is one of the few times of the year where there is no baseball in Florida.

Luckily, the Florida Marlins came through in the clutch with their annual winter fanfest.The Fish are an enigma because they can be awesome to their fans and horrible, too. But this fanfest was pretty sweet.

The White Sox held these functions in hotel ballrooms, and the Tigers in the Joe Louis Arena. But cold weather isn’t an issue in Miami, so the Marlins were able to conduct the festivities at Joe Robbie Stadium.

There were booths lining the outside concourses with all sorts of freebies, activities and discounted goodies. I picked up a complete set of programs from the team’s first season and a bat autographed by former manager Rene Lachemann. The team offered tours of the clubhouse and dugouts and even let fans see Jeff Conine's All-Star Game trophy . Former player Warren Cromartie broadcasting a radio show and greeting fans.

The areapas alone made the trip worthwhile. Areapas are a Cuban treat made from two slices of sweet cornbread grilled with cheese. Apparently they’re considered borderline carnival food, like elephant ears, which is why they were sold from a cart at a fanfest. But I’m hooked.

It was cool to be in Miami, which seems like a different country because virtually everyone speaks Spanish. I thought this was a good time to try my limited abilities. The guy selling hot dogs from the cart in outside the courthouse did not seem impressed.

One of the Miami Herald reporters took me out to lunch in a real Cuban restaurant in Little Havana. After the incident with the hot dog vender, I let Herald reporter order for me.

Back to the trial.

The sides presented their closing arguments, with the prosecutors playing the tape again. The public defender representing the teacher noted that the victims had filed a civil suit. He repeated two phrases over and over: "Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned," and "Show me the money!"

Now, I haven’t covered a lot of trials. And I know these guys didn’t have a lot to work with. But I’m thinking there are few successful legal defenses built upon quotes from "Jerry Maguire" and pithy phrases.

At first I wondered if the jury would even have to leave the box to break out with the verdict. I studied the six people — apparently that’s the number for some Florida trials — during the proceedings. There was one stern-looking woman who barely moved as she watched intently. One guy seemed odd, wearing shorts and carrying his lunch in a metal lunch box that he kept in his lap the entire time. And there was one person who I’m pretty sure slept through the whole thing.

No one could figure out what was taking so long, but I used the down time to get to know some people in the court. I’d been speaking to the lawyers on both sides on the phone for a couple weeks, so it was nice to let them connect my voice and face. They were all from New York, so we had a lot to talk about. The judge even called me into her chambers to chat and asked me to send her some of the Michigan newspapers. "I can’t imagine what they’re talking about in there," she said of the jury. "There isn’t really a lot to decide."

Finally, late in the morning of the second day, the jury came back. The court was packed with family members of the victims and some of the teacher’s family and friends. It was very quiet, and very tense. Then the clerk read the verdict: "Not guilty."

First there was stunned silence, like people couldn’t believe what was happening. Then all heck broke out.

Shrieks, screams, sobs. One of the fathers yelled "Burn in hell!" A mother yelled to one of the public defenders — who was seven months pregnant — that she hoped the lawyer’s child gets a teacher like the accused. Several of the girls collapsed in tears. The judge was hammering her gavel like Marky Ramone beats his snare drum.

I knew it would be a while before the victims families could compose themselves enough to talk to me, so I walked up to the defense table for a quote."You have to give me a couple minutes, Dave," the lead defender said. "We have statement here for a guilty verdict. We didn’t even write one for not guilty."

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1 comment:

Tony Hartsfield said...

Wow. Makes you really question the justice system.