Joel Lazarus, Judge And Jury

Judge Joel Lazarus threw out Count 1 -- the unlawful compensation felony charge, the meat of the case -- against Keith Wasserstrom. In a directed verdict, he granted the defense's motion to toss the charge because it was "circumstantial" and "speculative."

I asked the judge afterward if he knew about this Florida Supreme Court opinion that said such cases, by necessity, could be based on circumstantial evidence.

Requiring proof of an explicit deal "imposes too high a burden on the state and would prohibit prosecution of all but the most blatant violations," wrote Justice Raoul Cantero in the 16-page opinion issued April 22. "Public corruption has become sophisticated enough... to expect that public officials soliciting or accepting unlawful compensation ordinarily will not be so audacious as to explicitly verbalize their intent."

Lazarus indicated to me that he wasn't aware of the opinion. He indicated that he did not. So much for the law.

Wasserstrom still faces four counts of official misconduct, but Lazarus has basically paved the way for him to walk.

This isn't the first time Lazarus has thrown justice out the window. In 2001, he famously sentenced 14-year-old Lionel Tate to life in prison. Even the prosecutor thought that was ridiculous and it was eventually overturned. And then there's the time he totally missed the ball while he was a prosecutor on one of the most notorious serial killers in Broward County history, Eddie Lee Mosley, paving the way for more heinous crimes.

Way to keep your track record for wrong and damaging decisions alive, Lazarus.

UPDATE: Here's a link to a story about the Supreme Court ruling in Castillo case. But don't just take my word for it. Kelly Cramer, then of the Daily Business Review, also wrote a story about the ruling. Here's her lede:

June 7, 2004 Daily Business Review Newly armed The Florida Supreme Court has given South Florida’s prosecutors a powerful new weapon in fighting public corruption. But how will they use it? By Kelly Cramer

With so many part-time, poorly paid elected officials, an inbred political culture and a largely apathetic electorate, South Florida long has been known for public corruption.

Civic activists say that’s at least partly because county prosecutors have not been aggressive enough in going after public officials suspected of receiving payoffs in return for various government favors, such as approvals, votes and contracts. Prosecutors generally reply that it’s tough to produce solid proof of a quid pro quo deal.

But now, under a new Florida Supreme Court ruling, such proof is no longer needed. Prosecutors and defense attorneys agree that the ruling will make it easier to nail public officials for taking unlawful compensation, including gifts, contracts, professional fees and plain old bags of cash.

In State v. Castillo, issued April 22, the high court unanimously ruled that under a 1974 state law prohibiting unlawful enrichment, prosecutors only have to prove that a public official received a benefit and delivered a favor. Under the ruling, that constitutes sufficient circumstantial evidence of corrupt intent for a jury to convict.

Previous interpretations of the 1974 law had set a higher burden of proof, requiring evidence of an explicit deal. It’s notoriously hard to prove a quid pro quo, since illegal payoffs generally are done with a nod and a wink.

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