High-Profile Prosecutor Abbe Rifkin Will Challenge Judge Matthew Destry This Election

Abbe Rifkin says she has wanted to be a judge ever since she was sworn into the Florida Bar. That was in 1981, when she had just started working as a prosecutor with the Miami-Dade State Attorney’s Office. She has tried dozens of high-profile murder cases and is active in the South Florida legal community.

But in the past few years, Gov. Rick Scott has overlooked Rifkin numerous times for judicial appointments. Now Rifkin has decided to challenge incumbent Broward County Circuit Court Judge Matthew Destry. She made the announcement last Thursday at the South Broward Bar President’s installation dinner. “I love being a public servant, and this is my next step,” Rifkin tells New Times. “This has nothing to do with my qualifications. It’s 2016 and an election year, so I’ve decided to take it to the people.”

Destry is known around the Broward courthouse for his extremely harsh and random sentences. Dozens of attorneys, prosecutors, public defenders, and defendants came forward about their frustration in a recent New Times story.

Destry was appointed in 2008 by then-Gov. Charlie Crist. Since then, Destry has been criticized for Tweeting from the bench, arriving hours late to court in the mornings, and holding sessions until midnight. Last year, he was tied with Broward Judge Barbara McCarthy for having the most sentences he dished out overturned on appeal — at 11. But recently Destry has come under scrutiny for sentencing a 23-year-old to 60 years in prison for a nonviolent probation violation and then, after a viral online petition, changing the sentence to just probation. The defendant, Herbert Smith, and his family were ultimately relieved, but Howard Finkelstein, Broward’s public defender, accused Destry of surrendering to bad publicity. “Destry did the right thing but for the wrong reasons. To go from 60 years in prison to being released that day — the takeaway is that justice is random in Broward County."

The defense attorney in that case, Brian Greenwald, was so disturbed by Destry’s actions that he was motivated to challenge Destry himself. Greenwald, a former public defender and criminal defense attorney, announced that he was running against Destry in February. He says Destry has sent many of his clients to prison for much longer than even the prosecution recommended. “This is a call to arms,” Greenwald told New Times. “Herbert Smith was the straw that broke the camel’s back.”

Rifkin moved to Miami as a teenager in 1970. She graduated from Miami Beach Senior High and attended the University of Florida. She graduated from the University of Miami Law School. She interned at the Miami-Dade State Attorney’s Office. In 1981, during her final year of law school, she accepted a position. In 1980, she became a prosecutor — then began trying murder cases a decade later.

She is known for trying the first murder case in Miami without a body. She got that conviction. (She also tried the second murder case without a body and got that conviction too.) In 1998, she tried Harrel Franklin Bradde after he threw his girlfriend’s 5-year-old daughter into a canal along Alligator Alley, where she was found drowned with a missing arm and crushed skull (believed to be eaten alive by an alligator). Rifkin tried O.J. Simpson in a road-rage incident in 2001 but lost that conviction. She called Simpson the “Teflon Man.” In 2014, Rifkin tried a widow who was accused of murdering the man she claimed was responsible for her deceased husband’s killing. The case aired on Dateline last year.

Rifkin is currently head of the Sexually Violent Predator Unit and is senior trial counsel for Miami’s most complex murder cases. She sits on the board of directors of Broward County Women Lawyer’s Association and is vice president of the South Broward Bar.

Rifkin lives in Pembroke Pines with her husband of 32 years. They have two adult daughters. When she’s not trying cases, she teaches law at Florida International University. In her spare time, she sings and is a featured soloist at Temple Beth Emet in Cooper City.

“If the people of Broward favor me with an election, I can promise I will always follow the law, and I will always listen to all litigants, and I will always be fair, and I will take into consideration all sides and never make up my mind before I have heard all the facts,” Rifkin says.

The primary is in August. 
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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