These Are the Times That Try Victims' Souls

Sheron Thomas was apparently in no mood to read the Sun-Sentinel in the early morning hours of Thanksgiving Day four years ago. As delivery woman Sandi Shattuck pulled into his Hollywood Hills driveway around 5:30 a.m. to drop off her first newspaper of the day, Thomas displayed his gratitude by opening fire on her with a .38-caliber handgun.

"I'm your Sun-Sentinel carrier," Shattuck yelled as she backed her two-door Chevy Spectrum out of the driveway. The car was loaded with newspapers bloated with advertising to mark the commencement of the shopping season.

Thomas was not dissuaded. He chased her to the end of the block, firing at least four more shots and hitting the car twice, according to Shattuck. One bullet lodged in the driver-side door. "I have no doubt in my mind that this man was out to kill me," she says. "Thank God he must have been a bad shot."

According to a police report, Thomas had been lying in wait because two hours earlier a vehicle had rammed Thomas' car into the garage door and sped away. The bewildered newspaper delivery woman, he believed, was the perpetrator returning to the scene of the crime.

If Thomas' greeting seemed particularly un-holiday-like, Shattuck, age 45, could never have anticipated the treatment she would receive at the hands of the South Florida judicial system. Four years after the Thanksgiving Day shootout, the 40-year-old Thomas, who was charged with, among other things, aggravated assault with a firearm, has yet to stand trial.

The trial has been postponed 17 times, according to court records, and seven prosecutors have been assigned to the case, each one moving to another post before the case could go to trial. In short, Shattuck's hope for justice has fallen prey to a court system long on cases and short on judges and lawyers. "There is something obviously very wrong with our justice system," she says.

She may be right. According to the Sourcebook of Criminal Justice Statistics, put out by the U.S. Department of Justice, the average time between arrest and conviction for felony trials in state courts was 173 days, or just under six months, in 1994, the most recent year for which figures are available. For aggravated assault cases, the number was 206 days, or almost seven months.

But four years?
"That's an extraordinarily long time in a criminal case," says John Goerdt, who has studied the court-delay phenomenon for the National Center For State Courts and is now the director of State Court Planning for the Iowa Supreme Court. "You're out there in the top half of one percent of all cases," he adds, referring to the Thomas case.

Even the Hollywood police officers who originally investigated the case have begun to wonder if it will ever find its way to court. "It's getting to be like a joke around here, because we keep getting the subpoenas," says Det. Robert Alfano. "Maybe they're hoping that the victim gets tired of this."

Meanwhile, Thomas' arrest record has grown. According to police reports and court records, the former Miami-Dade County juvenile corrections officer was arrested in June 1997 and charged with aggravated battery. In a sworn deposition, his wife said that he punched her until all the bones in her face were broken. And in February 1998 Thomas and a passenger were charged with possession of cocaine in Hollywood after a police officer allegedly found five and a half grams of crack in their car. Neither case has gone to trial so far.

Adam Balkan, the assistant state attorney now prosecuting the Thomas cases, claims that a four-year delay is unremarkable. "Come poke around every judge division around here," he offers. "You'll find cases that old and older."

One high-profile example is the case of Clinton Brown, who in 1996 stood trial for the murder of Jane Logan. In 1992, Logan was shot twice during a botched robbery attempt outside of Long John Silver's seafood restaurant on State Road 7 in Fort Lauderdale. After spending four and a half years in jail awaiting trial, Brown was acquitted by a jury on charges of first-degree murder and attempted armed robbery.

Not surprisingly, neither the prosecution nor the defense in the Thomas case will take the blame for the four-year delay. Officials in the state attorney's office say that having seven prosecutors handle one case during that period of time is not unusual and has not had an impact on the case moving forward. They note that lawyers in the office are often either moved to various departments or leave for higher-paying jobs in the private sector.

Whatever's happening in the state attorney's office, Bernie Boeber, the assistant public defender representing Thomas, says he's ready for trial and believes his client has a strong case for acquittal. On the morning of the incident, he says, Thomas' house had just been vandalized, and Shattuck drove "erratically," refusing to stop the car when asked by his client. "Her actions convinced him in his mind that it was the burglar, that it wasn't the delivery person," Boeber adds.

Shattuck's response? Of course she drove erratically. She swerved her car in a frenzied attempt to avoid being shot. "He didn't shoot just one time in the air, like a police officer would, or say 'Halt!' or something," Shattuck recalls. "He literally first shot right at me, dead on in front of me at my car. Then he ran me down the road."

Although several of the 17 trial postponements were granted because witnesses and/or police officers expected to testify were not available or because the participating lawyers had conflicting cases, most often the culprit has been an overburdened Broward County court system. Many of the continuances have been issued at the urging of the trial judge, Richard D. Eade.

Judge Eade did not return phone calls requesting comment for this story. But according to prosecutors and defense lawyers who have argued cases before him, Eade is a meticulous justice who's willing to hear every motion and plea. He also recently tried several long, high-profile murder cases, and he has at least 600 cases pending. Every couple of months, when the Thomas case is set to be scheduled, it's usually knocked off the docket by more pressing cases, according to Boeber and Balkan.

Evidently Judge Eade's situation is the norm in South Florida. "The caseload is just horrendous," says James Benjamin, president of the Broward Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers. "Every judge has too many cases; every prosecutor has too many cases; every public defender has too many cases."

More to the point, the courts don't have enough judges. Although the Florida Supreme Court recommended last year the appointment of two new judges for Broward County, the posts have yet to be funded by the state legislature.

Shattuck could care less what the excuses are. She blames the four-year delay on the fact that Thomas was once a corrections officer and is therefore receiving preferential treatment. She says that after the Hollywood police realized Thomas was a fellow officer, they pressured her to sign a statement agreeing not to press charges. (A spokesperson for the Hollywood Police Department denies Shattuck's claim.)

"They acted like I was the criminal," she says. "All I kept hearing was that he was a victim too, poor guy."

Since the shooting Shattuck has become something of a cop herself. She heads Turn Around Fort Lauderdale, a crime-prevention group that tries to drive drug dealers from neighborhoods by staging marches and vigils. Several nights a week, she patrols the city in a faux squad car, scouring the streets for criminals as part of the Citizens on Patrol program run by the city.

Shattuck has amassed a two-inch thick stack of subpoenas issued to her and her son, John, who was one of the first people to arrive on the scene. Each one teases her with the promise of a trial. About every two months, when Judge Eade sets his trial schedule, she gets served with yet another one. Some subpoenas she hasn't even bothered to open, knowing all too well what the end result will be.

Although Thomas no longer lives at the Hollywood Hills address where the shootout took place, Shattuck continues to pull into the driveway each weekday morning and deliver a newspaper. Nowadays, though, it's the Wall Street Journal rather than the Sun-Sentinel.

"I still have problems when I look at the house," Shattuck says. "Every time I throw [the newspaper], a flashback comes of what happened that night.

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Paul Demko
Contact: Paul Demko