Another Complaint About Judge Destry: First-Time Offender Got Ten Years for $50 Drug Deal

Maxime Cherilus, a bulky, soft-spoken 22-year-old, had only $1.13 in his bank account. It was October 2012 and his $500 rent payment was due. Two years earlier, Cherilus had to drop out of college because he needed money. He was now balancing two jobs as a cashier at a smoke shop and as a valet to support his family back home in Haiti. His best friend’s older brother offered to provide the money if Cherilus helped him make a cocaine deal.

Although he swears he had never been involved in drug dealing prior to that, Cherilus agreed and met a man named Johnny at the Panera in Coral Springs. Johnny hopped into Cherilus’ 1996 Toyota Camry and asked for a sample. Cherilus nudged a cigarette box with approximately 1 gram of crack cocaine inside. Johnny handed him $50.

Except Johnny wasn’t really Johnny; he was an undercover detective with the Coral Springs Police Department. Cherilus’ best friend’s brother — a man with a long rap sheet of drug charges — was their confidential informant.

Four days later, Cherilus was arrested. It was the first time Cherilus was ever in trouble with the law. That’s why Cherilus refused prosecution’s plea deal that would have him serve 18 months. Furthermore, as a Haitian immigrant, he feared deportation if he pleaded guilty.

He spent the next two years staying out of trouble and awaiting adjudication. In 2014, Cherilus found himself in Judge Matthew Destry’s courtroom. Destry sentenced him to ten years in prison — more than six times the prosecution’s recommendation. Cherilus’ family wailed in the courtroom. Cherilus was in shock.

“This is one case in my over 18 years of practice that I can’t wrap my head around,” says Cherilus’ attorney, Michael D. Weinstein, now. “It was jaw-dropping that he gave him 120 months in state prison for $50 worth of crack cocaine. I’ve had clients with 150 kilos get ten years.”

Since February 2014, Cherilus has been serving time in Florida state prison. Now he's awaiting an opinion on his appeal.

Cherilus is just one of a handful of defendants who believed they were harshly sentenced under Destry. This year, Destry is up for reelection, and a handful of attorneys, defendants, and their families have come forward to raise awareness of Destry’s notorious sentencing — in many cases, much harsher than the prosecutor recommends. Howard Finkelstein of the Broward Public Defender’s Office has said “the problem is that [Destry] doesn't see the humanity of poor people."

New Times left repeated messages with Destry’s judicial assistant that have not been returned. We’ll update this post when we hear back.

In November, Destry made headlines for sentencing 23-year-old Herbert Smith. Smith had been found guilty of seven felonies — mostly burglaries and thefts — when he was 19. Smith was considered a youthful offender and served two years in prison for the charges. He was out on four years' probation when cops pulled him over for driving on a suspended license and having ammo in the car. The prosecution recommended 13 years. Destry sentenced him to 60.

Smith's family was outraged and circulated a petition calling for Destry's removal from the bench for oversentencing Broward's youth. It attracted the ire of rapper Hot Rod and Oprah Winfrey Network’s educational leader Dr. T. More than 20,000 people signed it. Then in a last-ditch status hearing two weeks later, Destry shocked everyone again: He let Smith go home that day with no prison time but a 15-year probation. 

It was a move Finkelstein criticized as “doing the right thing for the wrong reasons.” He said that “the takeaway is that justice is random in Broward County.”

Tonya Dumas, Smith’s friend, who launched the petition, was pleased to hear that Destry mitigated the sentence. But Dumas is still not done. She has vowed to continue raising awareness against Destry and any other judge who unfairly sentences defendants. She reports that Smith is currently working at a job that pays $13 an hour.

“Herb is doing good,” Dumas says. “He has a job and is working, trying to keep a low profile and stay out of trouble.”

Dumas says other people — “victims,” she calls them — are speaking to her about the unfair sentencing of loved ones. She is gearing up to launch a campaign against unfair sentencing in Broward County, focusing on Destry. When Dumas heard about Cherilus’ case, she was saddened: “It wasn’t just Herb that Destry did this to,” Dumas sighed. “There are several people locked up because of him. He ruined their lives.”

Unlike Herbert Smith, Cherilus did not receive much media attention about his trial. He has been spent the last year in Florida state prison. His release date is listed as February 2024. He’ll be 34 years old.

“Obama is pardoning all these federal prisoners for drug offenses because those charges were not supposed to be so harsh,” Dumas says. “Destry has done that to several people, several people who are locked up and won’t be coming out anytime soon.”

Weinstein says he remembers Cherilus very well. “The whole issue was that Destry didn’t find Max believable. I didn’t see it. I believed every word he said,” Weinstein says. “Max was incredibly down on his luck, an immigrant working two jobs.”

In 2014, Weinstein told the court in his closing statement: “Maxime was in a desperate situation. He climbed in bed with the devil because he couldn’t pay his rent that month.”

Cherilus’ case is currently on appeal in the fourth district court awaiting opinion. Weinstein is hopeful.

“I’m not saying that Max didn’t deserve to be punished,” Weinstein says. “But with that sentence — ten years — you’re taking away all of his good years. It’s so overboard, it doesn’t do anything but waste taxpayers’ dollars.”
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Jess Swanson is a staff writer at New Times. Born and raised in Miami, she graduated from the University of Miami’s School of Communication and wrote briefly for the student newspaper until realizing her true calling: pissing off fraternity brothers by reporting about their parties on her crime blog. Especially gifted in jumping rope and solving Rubik’s cubes, she also holds the title for longest stint as an unpaid intern in New Times history. She left the Magic City for New York to earn her master’s degree from Columbia University School of Journalism, where she spent a year profiling circumcised men who were trying to regrow their foreskins for a story that ultimately won the John Horgan Award for Critical Science Journalism. Terrified by pizza rats and arctic temperatures, she quickly returned to her natural habitat.
Contact: Jess Swanson