TALLAHASSEE — Appellate judges have gone back and forth about whether former Florida Senate president W.D. Childers should have been convicted of bribery, and now all 11 members of a federal appeals court will hear the case again.
In a rare move, the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeal in Atlanta granted a request by the state and agreed Wednesday to rehear Childers' appeal after it vacated a three-judge panel's decision to reverse his bribery conviction.
The panel's 2-1 ruling was issued in June almost exactly a year after Childers, now 76, was released from state prison, where he served most of a 3 1/2-year sentence.
The conviction stemmed from his actions as an Escambia County commissioner. The Pensacola Republican was elected to that office in 2000 after term limits forced him out of the Senate after 30 years. A state court jury found him guilty of bribing a fellow commissioner to vote for a county land purchase.
At stake is an estimated $2,500 in monthly pension benefits Childers lost because of his felony conviction, but Childers' lawyer, Nathan Dershowitz, said Childers is mostly fighting to clear his name.
"He just believes that had he had a fair trial and an opportunity to appropriately cross-examine, he would have been acquitted," Dershowitz said by phone from his New York City office.
The majority opinion in June agreed that the late Circuit Judge Jere Tolton had deprived Childers of that opportunity, which violated his constitutional right to confront his accuser.
Tolton refused to let Childers' defense lawyer question County Commissioner Willie Junior about why he had changed his testimony from what he said at the trial of another defendant who was acquitted.
Junior, who said Childers bribed him with a cooking pot full of cash, committed suicide by drinking antifreeze just before he was to start serving a prison term for bribery and other crimes unrelated to the land deal.
Federal Circuit Judge Gerald Bard Tjoflat dissented from the June opinion. He argued that the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996 prohibited a federal court from reversing a state appellate court in such a case.
Florida's 1st District Court of Appeal also had rejected Childers' argument in a 10-4 full-court opinion. The full state court took the case away from a three-judge panel, which also had split 2-1 in Childers' favor, even before the panel's decision could be released.