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In the wee hours of February 27, 1999, John Holland and Carl Wald decided to end their night of bar-hopping. Holland, who felt he was too drunk to drive, handed his keys to his rugby buddy and agreed to go to Wald's Palm Beach Gardens home for some breakfast.
They arrived at the Giralda Circle apartment and found Carl's brother Jonathan Wald, who had been out drinking with them earlier that night, asleep on the couch. Carl Wald headed straight for the kitchen to cook some eggs, and Holland, who felt dizzy, made his way to the guest bedroom. To Holland's inebriated surprise, Jonathan Wald's 19-year-old girlfriend, who had also been out with them that night, was asleep on the bed. Feeling disoriented, Holland climbed in anyway. After sleeping for a short while, Holland woke up.
Only two people know what happened in the few minutes between that moment and 3:30 a.m., when Jonathan Wald called 911 to report that Holland had sexually assaulted the young woman. The strange legal battle that ensued came to an end January 5, 2001, when Holland pleaded no contest to one count of misdemeanor battery.
At first glance the case, reported in two brief articles in the Sun-Sentinel and one in The Palm Beach Post, seems like just another enigmatic, he said/she said tale. In reality it is rife with perceived and real conflicts of interest, bad choices, and theories that prosecutors were unjust. Holland, a sandy-haired New England native with a thick accent, is a Sentinel reporter who covers the legal system and has a reputation for aggressively pursuing hard-hitting stories. (Until May 1999 he worked for The Palm BeachPost.) He spoke only hesitantly about the case. Jonathan Wald, who was an intern in the Palm Beach State Attorney's Office (SAO) at the time of the incident, declined to comment. He is now in private practice.
According to a police report, the victim told detectives who responded to the incident that Holland had kissed her, touched her breasts, spanked her, hit her with a belt, and penetrated her with his fingers. She said she did not resist Holland at first because she mistook him for Jonathan Wald. She explained she was already naked and passed out on the bed when Holland and Carl Wald arrived home.
In a statement to police, Holland argued the two had what amounts to a consensual make-out session. He acknowledged kissing, caressing, and lightly spanking her once. He maintained, however, that he never touched her vaginal area or hit her with a belt. According to the police document: "[Holland] states that at one point they looked at each other and [the victim] said, "This is wrong.' John stated that he got out of bed and left the residence."
Police found no mark on the victim's body to indicate Holland had hit her with his hand or a belt. They did not pursue Holland that night, nor did they arrest him. Holland contends he only heard of the investigation five days later.
Then, in a three-way call with Palm Beach Gardens detective John Boyle and Carl Wald March 3, 1999, Holland emphasized the encounter was consensual. Detectives then waited more than two months, until May 10, to again interview the reporter. Around that time Holland accepted a job covering courts at the Sentinel, where editors apparently knew about the probe. "I always thought John was forthcoming with his supervisors," says Ellen Soeteber, a former Sentinel managing editor, who is now editor of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. "And we had no complaint with him." She declines to comment further.
On June 15 Detective Boyle filed a probable-cause affidavit, which showed the victim's accusations would constitute one felony count of sexual battery. Boyle did not return repeated phone calls seeking comment.
After Boyle filed the affidavit, the case landed on the desk of Charles Burton. Then a prosecutor, Burton has since become a judge. He is known across America for his role as chairman of the Palm Beach County canvassing board during the recent presidential ballot fiasco. "She told me she was 75 percent sure about penetration," Burton says of his interviews with the victim. "That's not [sure] enough." Her uncertainty was significant. If a defendant penetrates a victim with his fingers, he can be charged with felony sexual battery. Otherwise the crime might be classified a misdemeanor. But, Burton remembers, "I found [her story] credible."
When Burton realized the young woman's boyfriend, Jonathan Wald, had been an intern in the Palm Beach SAO, he became concerned about a potential conflict of interest: Prosecutors may have known Wald, so they might have trouble objectively considering the case. In August 1999 Gov. Jeb Bush signed an executive order assigning prosecution of the case to the Broward SAO. (It would, however, still be heard in a Palm Beach County court.)
Dennis Siegel, Broward's assistant state attorney in charge of the sex crimes/child abuse unit, took over the case. In February 2000 Siegel filed four counts of misdemeanor battery against Holland. Next, Palm Beach criminal court judge Cory Ciklin recused himself at least partly because Holland had written a 1997 Palm Beach Post series on courtroom leniency. The series begins: "In Palm Beach County, child molesters rarely go to prison. Men who beat their pregnant wives almost always get probation. And a person who breaks into your house is more likely to get a break here than anywhere in the state."