Politics

After Sentencing 23-Year-Old to 60 Years in Prison, Judge Matthew Destry Defeated in Primary

Back in November, Broward Judge Matthew Destry sentenced 23-year-old Herb Smith to 60 years in prison after he broke his probation. That sentence — more than four times the prosecution's recommendation — ignited a viral online petition (that garnered more than 45,000 signatures) calling for Destry's ousting. After the outcry, Destry reversed the sentence and let the young man go free.

A New Times investigation examined Destry's sentences and found that many are excessively harsh and seemingly random. When his judicial seat was up for re-election, Destry drew four challengers — more than any other judge this primary. The New Times criticisms have been the main campaign talking points for Destry's four opponents: Haccord Curry, assistant general counsel for the Department of Juvenile Justice; Barbara Duffy, a former Police Benevolent Association attorney; Brian Greenwald, a former Public Defender who defended Herb Smith; and Abbe Rifkin, an assistant Miami-Dade State Attorney.

At yesterday's primary, Broward voters agreed and decided they wanted a change. Destry was defeated, coming in fourth in the five-way race. The run-off election in November will pit Barbara Duffy (who earned 29 percent of the vote) against Abbe Rifkin (who earned 24 percent). 

"I'm thrilled," Rifkin tells New Times. "A portion of the voters heard my message, and I hope to bring my message now to the entire voting public in November."

On Facebook, Duffy was also excited and announced: "I want to say a huge THANK YOU to everyone who stood in the rain, endured blistering heat, made countless phone calls and went to vote! Our hard work paid off and we are now to a run-off. I love you all!"
While Destry defends the Herb Smith sentence and its reversal, it stands out when compared to other times when Destry went easy on a defendant — like when he sentenced a man who raped a middle-school girl to 2.5 years. Technically, the judge's sentences are legal and based on a set of guidelines. But last year, an appeals court overturned 11 of his rulings. The most recent overturning: his 10-year sentence of a 22-year-old nonviolent offender for selling $50 worth of crack cocaine. 

Howard Finkelstein of the Broward Public Defender’s Office has said, "The problem is that [Destry] doesn't see the humanity of poor people."

Ratonya Dumas, who launched the online petition against Destry last November, is relieved. She says Herbert Smith is like a son to her. Even after his sentence, she has worked tirelessly trying to raise awareness about Destry's sentences.

"Yes, I'm glad he's out of his seat," she tells New Times. "It's a start. We must now work on minimum mandatory sentencing. Those guidelines must be changed."
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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