Throughout the Broward County courthouse, attorneys and defendants alike have said that Circuit Court Judge Matthew Destry is harsh and unpredictable with the sentences he hands down, as reported in a recent New Times investigation. This frustration motivated Fort Lauderdale attorney Brian Greenwald to challenge Destry, who was appointed to the bench in 2008. Greenwald announced in February that he would run for Destry's seat in this coming fall election.
Many have applauded Greenwald for throwing his hat in the ring. Greenwald has a reputation as a smart and hardworking lawyer with more than 150 jury trials under his belt. But a 2008 police report shows that Greenwald once wielded a handgun during a road rage incident, though no charges were brought against him.
The report, from April 2008, states that Greenwald, who was a public defender at the time, and Christopher Guzzardo, a Marine Corps veteran, were driving on Broward Boulevard when one was cut off by the other. (Guzzardo and Greenwald gave conflicting accounts.) Guzzardo then stopped his car in the left lane on Broward Boulevard in front of Greenwald’s car. Guzzardo told police he got out of his vehicle to ask Greenwald why he kept cutting him off. That’s when, according to the report, “Greenwald grabbed his handgun, packed a round, and pointed the firearm at [Guzzardo] through the window.” Both claim they were in fear of their lives. Guzzardo and Greenwald both called police.
In this instance of "he said, he said," Greenwald was not arrested, and Fort Lauderdale Police returned his .40 caliber handgun on the scene. But Guzzardo told police he wanted to press charges. In sworn testimony, Guzzardo said, “I spent 11 years in the Marine Corps around all kinds of weapons, threats, three times in combat and I never feared for my life like I did that day when [Greenwald’s gun] was pointed at my head.”
Greenwald’s account is entirely different. In a letter sent by Greenwald’s attorney to police, Greenwald maintained that “since he was unable to move his car away from the situation and the driver of the vehicle seemed prepared to escalate to a physical confrontation, Brian removed his firearm and displayed it to the driver through his window... Our contention is that Mr. Greenwald was justified by the circumstances to display his weapon in a gesture of self-defense.”
The Broward County State Attorney’s Office declined to press felony aggravated assault charges against Greenwald. In a May 2008 closeout memo, Assistant State Attorney Ed Walsh explained: “There are no neutral witnesses to this incident... I doubt that there is any reasonable possibility of proving a case against Greenwald beyond and to the exclusion of a reasonable doubt.”
Eight years later, Guzzardo is shocked to hear that Greenwald is still practicing law and campaigning to become a judge. “'Maniacal' is the only adjective I can use to describe him,” Guzzardo tells New Times. “He shouldn’t be practicing law… How could he make a good judge when he clearly can’t make his own judgment calls?”
Today, Greenwald stands by his actions. “He threatened my life and threatened to kill me,” Greenwald tells New Times. “I was defending myself and had every right to do so as verified by police on the scene and the State Attorney’s Office.”
Greenwald was born and raised in South Florida. He attended the University of Florida and Syracuse College of Law. He then served as a Broward County public defender for eight years. In 2013, he went into private practice as a criminal defense attorney.
Last December, Greenwald was representing 23-year-old Herbert Smith when Destry sentenced Smith to 60 years in prison following a probation violation. Greenwald was shocked, given that the sentence was far longer than a 13-year plea deal initially offered by the prosecution. After public outcry, Destry mitigated the sentence to just probation.
That's ultimately what motivated Greenwald to challenge Destry. “Plenty of attorneys will complain about judges, but nothing will happen unless you are proactive and do something about it," he said at the time.
Earlier this month, high-profile Miami-Dade prosecutor Abbe Rifkin announced that she too will run for Destry's seat.
The primary election will be held in August.