A Devilish Deal

A high-profile judge long ago made a deal that freed the area's most heinous killer

Broward County Judge Joel T. Lazarus pulls out a big black binder full of newspaper clippings and lays it on the large desk in his courthouse office. The killers, rapists, and child molesters who fill the plastic pages have one thing in common: Lazarus prosecuted all of them before winning a seat on the bench. The gray-bearded, bespectacled judge boasts that he put some two dozen defendants in prison for life while working as an assistant state attorney from 1978 to 1993. As a judge he's still sending people away. Most recently he sentenced 14-year-old Lionel Tate to life in prison without chance of parole for killing a little girl while allegedly mimicking pro wrestling moves. It was one of the most publicized trials of Lazarus's career and produced an uproar from civil- and human-rights leaders, who felt the sentence was unjustly harsh.

Another famous defendant in Lazarus's distinguished career was Eddie Lee Mosley, now considered the worst serial killer and rapist in Broward County history. Though a section of the black binder is devoted to Mosley, Lazarus never put him away. Instead Lazarus and then-fellow prosecutor Carl Weinberg cut a plea deal in 1983 that freed the killer to roam the streets of a predominantly black section of north Fort Lauderdale and continue a series of murders that allegedly began in 1973.

When Lazarus received the case, Mosley was charged with two counts of rape and one of armed robbery. If convicted Mosley could have been sentenced to life in prison, but Lazarus and Weinberg chose to allow the defendant to do just five years if he pleaded guilty. Because the killer had already spent nearly four years in jail on the charges and was automatically awarded a year in gain time, the bargain allowed Mosley to go free immediately.

Joel T. Lazarus offered a honey of a plea deal to Eddie Lee Mosley, and the serial killer took advantage of it
Miami Herald
Joel T. Lazarus offered a honey of a plea deal to Eddie Lee Mosley, and the serial killer took advantage of it

The deal even stunned Mosley's public defender, Steve Michaelson: The crimes were horrific, and Mosley had a reputation in courthouse circles as a serial rapist and killer. The public defender had been employing an insanity defense; even if the cases had gone to trial and the jury agreed with Michaelson, Mosley would almost certainly have been ordered to a mental hospital for many years.

"When I first heard the offer, I didn't think I was hearing it straight," Michaelson recalls. "I thought they must have said 15 years. I said, "Let me hear that again.' There may have been a good reason for it, but I didn't ask for a reason. When you get a good deal, you don't ask. You just take it and leave."

That's just what Mosley did, and on November 16, 1983, he walked out of jail. On December 19, less than a month after the deal had been accepted, authorities found the body of 36-year-old Geraldine Barfield, who had been raped and strangled, behind a church. Police believe Mosley killed her and six others during the three and a half years after Lazarus and Weinberg struck the deal. Mosley, who is now 54 years old, was charged with two of the latter six murders in 1987 but was ruled incompetent to stand trial and committed to a psychiatric hospital, where he remains.

He has returned to the news in recent weeks as new DNA testing has proved his involvement in seven killings between 1973 and 1987, three of which occurred after the 1983 plea deal. Local detectives suspect that he committed more than 15 murders and dozens of rapes.

While Mosley's terrible saga has resurfaced, the 1983 deal that freed him has been all but forgotten. The local media at best hasn't mentioned it and at worst has printed false information about his release. (The Miami Herald, for instance, erroneously reported on May 13 that an appellate decision freed Mosley.) Lazarus says he barely remembers the plea agreement but believes he made it because of the character of the women who were raped. "The type of victims we had with Mosley made them extremely difficult cases," explains Lazarus. "The victims were street people. I was dealing with prostitutes and druggies, and they don't make very credible witnesses."

Those victims, like most of Mosley's alleged prey, were poor, uneducated, and black. "Race had nothing to do with it," Lazarus says of Mosley's slippery ride through the justice system. "If the victims had been white and on drugs or in prostitution, it would have been the same."

Courthouse records, however, give no indication the two victims were drug addicts or prostitutes, and Lazarus recalls nothing specific about them to bolster to his point. The files show that both victims -- one age 16, the other 33 at the time -- complained in the spring of 1980 that they were dragged from the street and attacked. (New Times was unable to contact either woman and is withholding both names to protect the women's privacy.) A jury apparently believed the 16-year-old -- in 1981 it convicted Mosley of raping her. Mosley was sentenced to 15 years in prison, but the conviction, won by Weinberg, was overturned after appellate lawyers argued that Mosley's private attorney, Robert Hurth, had wrongfully abandoned an insanity defense. The appellate decision, however, didn't free Mosley. It reopened the case and sent it back to the state attorney for retrial.

Lazarus handled the case involving the 33-year-old woman, who was on her way to work at a maid service when Mosley allegedly crept up from behind her on the street, put a knife to her throat, and forced her into some nearby bushes. She told police he had pulled out a small pistol, demanded she disrobe, urinated on her, and raped her before taking $20 from her at gunpoint.

Like Lazarus, Weinberg -- who now practices law in White Plains, New York -- says he didn't want to retry the case because the victim's testimony wasn't credible. And he said defense attorney Hurth's mistake had paved the way for the first conviction, and he couldn't count on another blunder.

Six months after his release in 1983, Mosley was charged with raping a 22-year-old mother. This time the victim did, in fact, have a drug problem. With her 18-month-old son present, she said, she had agreed to go into the bushes with Mosley for cocaine but had never consented to sex, and Mosley threatened her life and brutally raped her. This time Lazarus actually took the case to trial, and on October 25, 1984, a jury acquitted Mosley. "I got a weak case, but I gave it my best shot," Lazarus recounts.

When Mosley was told he could go free, he wept with joy while his mother praised Jesus. Before the killer left the courtroom, Circuit Judge Harry Hinckley Jr. said it all: "Escaped again."

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