Forget Shorty, Get Marvin!

How novelist Elmore Leonard's friendship with Palm Beach County criminal judge Marvin Mounts led to a popular book and a new TV show

Mounts experienced a personal brush with the judicial system in August 1993 when his son Gregory, then 26 years old, was arrested along with two accomplices. The trio was accused of entering a West Palm Beach home dressed as policemen and stealing $7000 in cash. One accomplice pointed a 9mm handgun at a resident of the home, according to police reports. Another resident, Jacqueline Hogue, arrived midheist and was handcuffed inside the house. She was pregnant.

"We are devastated by the enormity of the accusation," the elder Mounts wrote in a press release at the time of the incident. "Our son must now endure the rigors and scrutiny of the criminal justice system. We trust he will be treated no differently than anyone else."

Gregory pleaded no contest to grand theft as well as to prior charges of possession and sale of marijuana. He received five years probation for all charges.

When asked about this case now and how it might have changed his judicial convictions, Mounts becomes philosophic. "Everything we do is the product of who we are," he answers rather cryptically. Then he lets the subject pass.

Not surprisingly, especially given his longevity on the bench, Mounts has received his share of criticism. One complaint: He can be full of himself and strict in the courtroom. Donnie Murrell has been a criminal defense attorney in West Palm Beach for more than fifteen years. In the mid-Eighties, as an attorney in the county's public defender's office, he was assigned to the circuit court's criminal division. That meant he'd have to deal with Mounts. "It was the saddest day of my life," he now says.

He's not joking. According to Murrell, Mounts has this way of hazing young lawyers -- of discouraging them, of breaking them in. "There's no doubt about it," Murrell sighs, "he has a way of going about things that makes him appear very pompous and distant."

Now a seasoned lawyer in private practice, Murrell adds that he has become accustomed to the judge's unusual ways and has learned to respect him. "A judge who doesn't get caught up in hysteria and a judge who is consistent is a damn good judge in my book," Murrell declares.

To his credit Mounts controls his courtroom better than most, observes Price, and he does so without resorting to screaming and yelling and holding people in contempt. The only time Price can remember a chaotic Mounts courtroom was more than six years ago, on November 6, 1991, when a jury acquitted West Palm Beach police officers Stephen Lee Rollins and Glen Thurlow of murdering a hitchhiker named Robert Jewett. At the announcement of the verdict, the crowd cheered and some even cried, prompting Mounts to command nine armed deputies and three bailiffs to clear the courtroom. Even outside in the hallway, West Palm Beach police officers continued to celebrate, slapping high-fives and giving the thumbs-up sign.

"It did get out of control, and I warned them," Mounts recalls. "I was dealing with police and they should have known better. I was greatly hurt by that."

Although a recent Palm Beach Post article revealed that Mounts' sentences for felons regularly come in under the state's guidelines, he can be as tough a sentencer as any judge in the county -- at least from Price's perspective. "He just slammed one of my clients," Price points out. "I was not at all expecting the twenty years he got. Nor was my client."

That same day a woman convicted of child abuse was accused of contacting her child, in violation of her probation. The state requested treatment. Mounts gave her 90 days instead.

"He didn't explain," Price shrugs.
He rarely does when it comes to sentencing.
"If you say it's terribly hard, then you're puffing," Mounts maintains. "You're saying look at all this responsibility I have to burden. You ought not to think about it much."

So instead of talking about sentencing, he consults a reference book he keeps on a shelf in his office, Bartlett's Familiar Quotations, situated among the "Far Side" comic strip books and the autographed Elmore Leonard novels. He pages through Bartlett's looking for his favorite Nietzsche quotation. Some of the pages are marked already, and he stops at them. "Wordsworth," he reads to himself. "Ahh, Hegel," he says. "I love Hegel."

Finally Mounts arrives at the Nietzsche quotation he is looking for. "'Distrust all in whom the impulse to punish is powerful,'" he reads aloud. "Every judge," he admonishes, "ought to be thinking about that."

Not including, of course, fictional judges.

Judge Bob Gibbs' wife, Leanne, is a former Weeki Wachee Spring mermaid who believes she has psychic powers that she can channel through a twelve-year-old girl named Wanda Grace, a slave on a Georgia plantation who died in 1855.

Polly Mounts is not her inspiration. "The wife in the book is insane," exclaims Polly, a retired Palm Beach County elementary schoolteacher who worked with gifted children. "And I mean really insane. People ask me how I feel about it. I love it."

And to be sure, Marvin Mounts is merely the inspiration -- not the model -- for Bob Gibbs. But like his wife, the judge is amused by all the attention Leonard's novel has brought. Mounts, after all, is just a judge, one eager to share a few oddball stories about his career as a jurist, but modest, if not reluctant, to discuss his personal background.

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