These Are the Times That Try Victims' Souls

Take a number and wait. That, in essence, is what the Broward County courts are telling crime victims even those who get shot at.

Sheron Thomas was apparently in no mood to read the Sun-Sentinel in the early morning hours of Thanksgiving Day four years ago. As delivery woman Sandi Shattuck pulled into his Hollywood Hills driveway around 5:30 a.m. to drop off her first newspaper of the day, Thomas displayed his gratitude by opening fire on her with a .38-caliber handgun.

"I'm your Sun-Sentinel carrier," Shattuck yelled as she backed her two-door Chevy Spectrum out of the driveway. The car was loaded with newspapers bloated with advertising to mark the commencement of the shopping season.

Thomas was not dissuaded. He chased her to the end of the block, firing at least four more shots and hitting the car twice, according to Shattuck. One bullet lodged in the driver-side door. "I have no doubt in my mind that this man was out to kill me," she says. "Thank God he must have been a bad shot."

According to a police report, Thomas had been lying in wait because two hours earlier a vehicle had rammed Thomas' car into the garage door and sped away. The bewildered newspaper delivery woman, he believed, was the perpetrator returning to the scene of the crime.

If Thomas' greeting seemed particularly un-holiday-like, Shattuck, age 45, could never have anticipated the treatment she would receive at the hands of the South Florida judicial system. Four years after the Thanksgiving Day shootout, the 40-year-old Thomas, who was charged with, among other things, aggravated assault with a firearm, has yet to stand trial.

The trial has been postponed 17 times, according to court records, and seven prosecutors have been assigned to the case, each one moving to another post before the case could go to trial. In short, Shattuck's hope for justice has fallen prey to a court system long on cases and short on judges and lawyers. "There is something obviously very wrong with our justice system," she says.

She may be right. According to the Sourcebook of Criminal Justice Statistics, put out by the U.S. Department of Justice, the average time between arrest and conviction for felony trials in state courts was 173 days, or just under six months, in 1994, the most recent year for which figures are available. For aggravated assault cases, the number was 206 days, or almost seven months.

But four years?
"That's an extraordinarily long time in a criminal case," says John Goerdt, who has studied the court-delay phenomenon for the National Center For State Courts and is now the director of State Court Planning for the Iowa Supreme Court. "You're out there in the top half of one percent of all cases," he adds, referring to the Thomas case.

Even the Hollywood police officers who originally investigated the case have begun to wonder if it will ever find its way to court. "It's getting to be like a joke around here, because we keep getting the subpoenas," says Det. Robert Alfano. "Maybe they're hoping that the victim gets tired of this."

Meanwhile, Thomas' arrest record has grown. According to police reports and court records, the former Miami-Dade County juvenile corrections officer was arrested in June 1997 and charged with aggravated battery. In a sworn deposition, his wife said that he punched her until all the bones in her face were broken. And in February 1998 Thomas and a passenger were charged with possession of cocaine in Hollywood after a police officer allegedly found five and a half grams of crack in their car. Neither case has gone to trial so far.

Adam Balkan, the assistant state attorney now prosecuting the Thomas cases, claims that a four-year delay is unremarkable. "Come poke around every judge division around here," he offers. "You'll find cases that old and older."

One high-profile example is the case of Clinton Brown, who in 1996 stood trial for the murder of Jane Logan. In 1992, Logan was shot twice during a botched robbery attempt outside of Long John Silver's seafood restaurant on State Road 7 in Fort Lauderdale. After spending four and a half years in jail awaiting trial, Brown was acquitted by a jury on charges of first-degree murder and attempted armed robbery.

Not surprisingly, neither the prosecution nor the defense in the Thomas case will take the blame for the four-year delay. Officials in the state attorney's office say that having seven prosecutors handle one case during that period of time is not unusual and has not had an impact on the case moving forward. They note that lawyers in the office are often either moved to various departments or leave for higher-paying jobs in the private sector.

Whatever's happening in the state attorney's office, Bernie Boeber, the assistant public defender representing Thomas, says he's ready for trial and believes his client has a strong case for acquittal. On the morning of the incident, he says, Thomas' house had just been vandalized, and Shattuck drove "erratically," refusing to stop the car when asked by his client. "Her actions convinced him in his mind that it was the burglar, that it wasn't the delivery person," Boeber adds.

Shattuck's response? Of course she drove erratically. She swerved her car in a frenzied attempt to avoid being shot. "He didn't shoot just one time in the air, like a police officer would, or say 'Halt!' or something," Shattuck recalls. "He literally first shot right at me, dead on in front of me at my car. Then he ran me down the road."

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