An attorney's attempt to hide documents that might implicate his client on a murder charge ended when a judge ruled from the bench today that the evidence is a public record.
Boca Raton defense lawyer Bruce Udolf had argued in court documents that releasing records to New Times about his client, Catherine Pileggi, would unfairly taint a potential jury pool. Udolf's motion didn't cite a law or a court case that would support his argument, so he used the better portion of the hourlong hearing to make an impassioned plea to Judge Carlos Rebollo. Udolf cited the Trayvon Martin shooting in Sanford as an example of how publicity can harm a case. "This is what inevitably happens when so much pretrial publicity is ginned up,"
Udolf is a former federal prosecutor and failed candidate in 2008 for Broward County sheriff. His client, Pileggi, is accused of stabbing and shooting Ronald Vinci to death on June 28, 2011. Police say she bought a dive weight belt the morning she killed him and attempted to dump his mutilated body at sea.
While researching a story about the murder, New Times sought documents from the State Attorney's Office that included crime-scene photos and Pileggi's personal journal. Udolf argued that releasing the documents would be "inflammatory" to his client.
The problem with his argument: Florida law, which states that most records in criminal cases should be made public. New Times filed a motion to intervene and asked the judge to quash Udolf's attempts at closing the records. Attorney Scott D. Ponce, representing New Times, argued that Miami Herald Publishing Co. v. Lewis, a 1982 ruling by the Florida Supreme Court, spells out when and how records could be closed -- arguments Udolf failed to make.
In response, Rebollo ruled in favor of New Times, granting access to most of the records in the Pileggi case. The judge ruled that autopsy photos were not public under the so-called Dale Earnhardt law. He also ruled to keep sealed, at least for now, a letter that Pileggi was said to have written. Udolf argued that the letter may include information that would fall under the attorney-client privilege exception to records laws. The letter had been torn up and reconstructed by the Florida Department of Law Enforcement's crime lab.
After the hearing, Ponce said the judge made the right call based on the law. "He thought about the issues, and in this case, the public's right to know wins out," Ponce said.
Udolf defended asking the court to seal public records. "In this instance," he said, "I have more respect for the Fifth than the First Amendment."
The judge, apparently, didn't agree with Udolf's lack of respect for the Constitution.
Eric Barton is editor of New Times Broward-Palm Beach. Email him here, or click here to follow him on Facebook.