In 2007, then-Gov. Charlie Crist appointed Matthew Destry as a criminal judge in Florida's 17th Judicial Circuit, serving Broward County. Shortly after, Brian Greenwald, then a public defender, was assigned cases that came before Destry. For three years, Greenwald witnessed Destry develop his reputation as the toughest sentencer in the Broward courthouse. Greenwald says Destry sent scores of his clients to prison much longer than even the prosecution had recommended.
It always bothered Greenwald. He's now decided to do something about it: try to remove Destry from the bench. He has announced he will run against him this November, when Destry is up for reelection.
“This is a call to arms,” Greenwald says. “Plenty of attorneys will complain about judges, but nothing will happen unless you are proactive and do something about it.”
New Times has left messages with Destry's judicial assistant seeking comment. We'll update this post if we hear back.
Greenwald, now a private criminal defense attorney, was inspired to run after representing Herbert Smith last year. In 2012, Smith, then 19, had been found guilty of seven felonies — mostly burglaries and thefts. Smith was deemed 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 the 23-year-old 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 23,000 people signed it. Then in a last-ditch status hearing in December, Destry shocked everyone again: He let Smith go home with no prison time but a 15-year probation. Smith has since been released and gotten a job.
“Herbert Smith was the straw that broke the camel's back,” Greenwald says. “Destry did the right thing for the wrong reasons.”
Howard Finkelstein of the Broward Public Defender's Office said: “To go from 60 years in prison to being released that day — the takeaway is that justice is random in Broward County.”
Finkelstein is not surprised Destry is being challenged for his seat this election. “When a judge exhibits extremely poor judgment, especially when it comes to sending people to prison, of course they're going to have an opponent.”
Despite Destry's critics, the sentences he doles out are legal. When determining a defendant's sentence, judges fill out a scoresheet that determines a mandatory minimum sentence for the crimes of which the person has been convicted. Beyond that, judges have wide latitude in deciding the length of a defendant's prison term.
But Greenwald stresses that it's important to be fair and consistent to all people before the court: “It's not a judge's job to assist the police or law enforcement or even the defense, for that matter. You have to be neutral and impartial to all litigants.”
Greenwald was born and raised in South Florida. He attended the University of Florida and Syracuse College of Law. Greenwald then served as a Broward County public defender for eight years. In 2013, he went into private practice as a criminal defense attorney. Throughout his career, Greenwald was lead counsel on more than 150 jury trials. He anticipates that fundraising will be his biggest hurdle this race.
“The fact that I am running, if that does anything to change what happens in that courtroom, is a win for me,” Greenwald says. “It always sounds cheesy, but I went into law to help people.”