ATLANTA — Attorneys for a former Florida Senate president asked a federal appeals court Tuesday to reverse his bribery conviction from his subsequent time as a local official, claiming a key trial error compromised the verdict.
W.D. Childers' lawyers told the full 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals that his conviction should be overturned because his legal team was denied the right to fully cross-examine another Escambia County commissioner who was a key witness for prosecutors.
The Pensacola Republican's conviction stemmed from his actions as a county commissioner, where he was elected after 30 years in the state Senate.
A state court jury found him guilty of bribing a fellow commissioner, Willie Junior, in 2001 to vote for a county land purchase.
Prosecutors say that Childers bribed Junior with a cooking pot full of cash to secure votes in favor of the county's purchase of a soccer complex from a businessman who rewarded the two commissioners with kickbacks.
At the trial, Childers' attorneys cross-examined Junior for hours on the witness stand. But after Childers was sentenced to 31/2 years in prison, he appealed, claiming that his lawyers weren't able to bring up efforts by prosecutors to revoke Junior's plea deal over concerns he changed his testimony.
Florida's appellate courts upheld the convictions, and a federal judge also rejected Childers' challenge. But a three-judge panel of the 11th Circuit reversed the ruling by a 2-1 vote, finding that Childers should have been allowed to challenge Junior's testimony during the trial. Junior has since died.
Christine Ann Guard, a Florida assistant attorney general, on Tuesday asked the 11 judges to reconsider that ruling and reinstate the conviction.
She said Childers failed to prove why more questioning of Junior would have hurt his credibility and motive for testifying, and argued that Childers' constitutional rights had never been violated.
But defense attorney Nathan Dershowitz contended that the state exploited an unfair advantage in the case that helped influence the outcome. Although Childers was released from prison in 2009 after serving most of the sentence, Dershowitz urged the court to reverse the conviction to clear his client's name.