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Do Broward Courts Treat Cases Differently Based on Media Attention?

That seems to be the implication of some emails between the public defender's office and a judicial assistant regarding the case of Charles Harper. (Harper pleaded guilty on February 2 to stalking his former foster dad, Broward Circuit Judge John Bowman).

The public defender's office refused to represent Harper because of a supposed conflict of interest: Bowman occasionally rules on whether to charge their clients. Harper's next option for a lawyer, the regional counsel, pulled out for similar reasons. He was finally assigned DUI attorney Bill Direnzo.

While the PD was trying to withdraw from the case, Harper was essentially without representation. This was not lost on the public defender's office, which knew the case was getting media attention. The assistant public defender, Jessica Medina, sent an e-mail

to Judge Ian Richards' judicial assistant on Sunday, January 23, asking to set a hearing for the following Tuesday to withdraw herself from the case.

The response from the judicial assistant, Lorraine Talamini, was curt:

Thursday, January 27, 2011 @ 9:00

Medina's reply on Monday morning:

Thank you, but it cant be set for tomorrow? It's a two minute hearing. I just talked to Mr. Harper who can make it tomorrow from Dade county.

Talamini:

No it can not. We already have too much set for tomorrow... Please do not wait to ask for the last minute for hearings and expect them to be put on right away...

Medina:

The Judge told me I can have the hearing set if the client contacted me... This client needs an attorney ASAP. The hearing was previously set and it will take literally two minutes. It's a local media case. I will ask the Judge today in open court to set it for tomorrow.

Talamini:

You should have stated what you just said from the beginning. I will be taklking to th Judge about allowing you to set hearings in thecourtrom. It is not the way it is done.

I will set for tomorrow since you say the Judge instructed you. In the future make yourself clear with regard to it being a media case and the Judge telling you.


Emphasis is ours. As it happened, Judge Richards allowed Medina to file the motion to withdraw that day in the courtroom, without setting a hearing. This allowed the process of eventually assigning Harper a lawyer -- which Medina said needed to happen "ASAP" -- to proceed.

Talamini says that she was responding to the fact that the judge had told Medina she could set the hearing. "As far as it being a media case, I just threw that in [the email]," says Talamini. "The most important statement there is what the judge, who is my boss, is telling her."

Catherine Keuthan, executive chief assistant to Public Defender Howard Finkelstein, says that the office identifies "media cases" based on lawyers' concern that media coverage could influence a jury or trial, and a corresponding need to move quickly. With regard to the exchange with Talamini, Keuthan says "it sounds like [Medina] was trying to get the [judicial assistant] to move her butt... if that's what she said in order to do it, I'll give her credit for it."

As for the influence of media presence? "I suspect that would definitely make the judge want to move on the case," says Keuthan.


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