Longform

Forget Shorty, Get Marvin!

Page 4 of 7

Maybe that's all right for some E.M. Forster story about life in the English countryside or perhaps a Robert James Waller tale that waxes lyrical about the Iowa corn fields. But this is supposed to be the saga of a gruff judge who faces swarthy characters and oily con artists every working day.

Which means that this judge can't be bothered with something like compassion each time he hands down a sentence. But Mounts, according to local defense and prosecuting attorneys, does just that -- thinking long and hard about the details of a case before announcing a sentence.

"He's got people on death row," notes Debra Price, an assistant public defender in Palm Beach County. "He is not afraid to impose the death penalty, although he puts a lot of thought and consideration into it. He certainly does not do it willy-nilly."

In August 1995 Mounts decided the fate of 22-year-old Kirby Chastine, who came before him for sentencing after he had been convicted in another court of armed robbery and murder. Chastine killed a Canadian tourist by shooting him twice -- in full view of the tourist's father and five-year-old son -- in front of a Lake Worth convenience store in 1992. He also shot the victim's father once in the back. The father survived.

Instead of giving Kirby Chastine the death penalty, however, Mounts sentenced him to two consecutive life sentences for the murder, and tacked on an additional 30 years for the armed robbery conviction. Mounts cited Chastine's intellectual incapacity to make moral decisions as his rationale for foregoing capital punishment. "I gave him as much as I could without killing him," Mounts says now. "That's sort of a crude way to put it."

Mounts experienced a personal brush with the judicial system in August 1993 when his son Gregory, then 26 years old, was arrested along with two accomplices. The trio was accused of entering a West Palm Beach home dressed as policemen and stealing $7000 in cash. One accomplice pointed a 9mm handgun at a resident of the home, according to police reports. Another resident, Jacqueline Hogue, arrived midheist and was handcuffed inside the house. She was pregnant.

"We are devastated by the enormity of the accusation," the elder Mounts wrote in a press release at the time of the incident. "Our son must now endure the rigors and scrutiny of the criminal justice system. We trust he will be treated no differently than anyone else."

Gregory pleaded no contest to grand theft as well as to prior charges of possession and sale of marijuana. He received five years probation for all charges.

When asked about this case now and how it might have changed his judicial convictions, Mounts becomes philosophic. "Everything we do is the product of who we are," he answers rather cryptically. Then he lets the subject pass.

Not surprisingly, especially given his longevity on the bench, Mounts has received his share of criticism. One complaint: He can be full of himself and strict in the courtroom. Donnie Murrell has been a criminal defense attorney in West Palm Beach for more than fifteen years. In the mid-Eighties, as an attorney in the county's public defender's office, he was assigned to the circuit court's criminal division. That meant he'd have to deal with Mounts. "It was the saddest day of my life," he now says.

He's not joking. According to Murrell, Mounts has this way of hazing young lawyers -- of discouraging them, of breaking them in. "There's no doubt about it," Murrell sighs, "he has a way of going about things that makes him appear very pompous and distant."

Now a seasoned lawyer in private practice, Murrell adds that he has become accustomed to the judge's unusual ways and has learned to respect him. "A judge who doesn't get caught up in hysteria and a judge who is consistent is a damn good judge in my book," Murrell declares.

To his credit Mounts controls his courtroom better than most, observes Price, and he does so without resorting to screaming and yelling and holding people in contempt. The only time Price can remember a chaotic Mounts courtroom was more than six years ago, on November 6, 1991, when a jury acquitted West Palm Beach police officers Stephen Lee Rollins and Glen Thurlow of murdering a hitchhiker named Robert Jewett. At the announcement of the verdict, the crowd cheered and some even cried, prompting Mounts to command nine armed deputies and three bailiffs to clear the courtroom. Even outside in the hallway, West Palm Beach police officers continued to celebrate, slapping high-fives and giving the thumbs-up sign.

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Michael Freedman