More Complaints About Judge Matthew Destry: He's "Tyrannical" and "Justice Is Random in Broward County"

"His power is unmitigated, and part of the problem is that he doesn't see the humanity of poor people."
"His power is unmitigated, and part of the problem is that he doesn't see the humanity of poor people."
Photo by Wally Gobetz via Flickr CC

Last month, Broward Judge Matthew Destry sentenced a 23-year-old to 60 years in prison. Though he reduced the sentence after a public outcry, other people say the judge has a pattern of doling out unnecessarily harsh sentences — in some cases, even longer than the prosecutor recommends. 

Herbert 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 — violations of his probation. The prosecution recommended 13 years, but Destry sentenced Smith to a whopping 60 years in prison instead. 

Smith's family was shocked and circulated a petition calling for Destry's removal from the bench for oversentencing Broward's youth. More than 20,000 people signed it. Then in a last-ditch status hearing two weeks ago, Destry shocked everyone again: He let Smith go home with no prison time but a 15-year probation. Smith has already been released and gotten a job. 

But no one is applauding Destry for his change of heart just yet.

“To go from 60 years in prison to being released that day — the takeaway is that justice is random in Broward County,” Howard Finkelstein of the Broward Public Defender's Office tells New Times. “Destry did the right thing but for the wrong reasons.”

New Times has left multiple messages with Destry's judicial assistant seeking comment. We'll update this post if we hear back.

Smith's close friend Ratonya Dumas started the petition against Destry. Even though Smith is back home, she is still speaking out against Destry. “This man needs to be exposed for the things that he is doing," she says. 

Four years ago, when Demetrius Vidale was 19, he hurled a rock at a bus in Broward County. His mother, Paula, turned him in and he was placed on probation as a youthful offender. Then, last year, Vidale was linked to a grand theft. That charge was overturned because of lack of evidence, but it was still considered a breach of his probation. Destry sentenced the 22-year-old to 20 years in prison.

“I am not afraid to say when my son is wrong. I was the one who turned him in and started this,” Vidale's mother, Paula, tells New Times. “This mess is because of Destry. Your life can be ruined depending on what day you catch him on.”

Vidale's attorney, Michael D. Weinstein, says Destry has sentenced other clients harshly too. Weinstein recounts the story of Maxime Cherilus, a 21-year-old first-time offender who was caught dealing $50 worth of cocaine.

“I don't think Destry's sentences are racially motivated. I've had clients receive fair punishment,” Weinstein tells New Times. “But I think he forgets each person's individuality and can pigeonhole an individual as a drug dealer.”

The Broward Public Defender's Office is familiar with Destry's ways. In fact, public defender Rafael Nones says it's not uncommon for him to tell his clients to take a prosecutor's plea deal — even if his client might be innocent — because it's not worth Destry's sentence.

“We try to insulate our clients from Destry and the wrath of a tyrannical judge,” Nones explains. “One or two years is better than decades being taken away.”

Nones says he recently represented a middle-aged man, a nonviolent offender, who was sentenced by Destry to ten years in prison for dealing $40 of crack cocaine. He says it's especially jarring since the federal government has lately shown leniency toward drug crimes after the harsh life sentences doled out since the Nixon era's War on Drugs.

“My client was sentenced just a day after Herbert Smith was,” Nones says. “I told the prosecutor, 'You got what you wanted,' and she shook her head and said, 'That's not what I wanted.'”

Finkelstein believes this all stems from Destry's personal beliefs: "His power is unmitigated, and part of the problem is that he doesn't see the humanity of poor people."


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