TALLAHASSEE — A federal appeals court Tuesday reversed the bribery conviction of former Florida Senate President W.D. Childers, who was known as the Legislature's "banty rooster" because of his feisty personality and short stature.
A three-judge panel of the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Atlanta issued the 2-1 ruling. The majority found Childers' trial judge erred by excluding evidence that could have impeached the credibility of the prosecution's star witness.
Childers, 76, was released from state prison last June after completing most of a 3 1/2-year sentence. But his lawyer, Nathan Dershowitz, said the former Pensacola lawmaker was still pleased.
"It vindicates him," Dershowitz said.
Childers' daughter, Karen Childers, herself a lawyer in Lake Worth, said the family was ecstatic.
The charges stemmed from Childers' service as an Escambia County commissioner. He was elected to that position when he left the Senate after 30 years in 2000 due to term limits.
A former Democrat who switched to the Republican Party late in his political career, Childers was accused of bribing a fellow commissioner, Willie Junior, by giving him a cooking pot filled with cash in exchange for a vote for the county's purchase of a former soccer complex in 2001.
Also facing bribery and other charges unrelated to the land deal, Junior committed suicide by drinking antifreeze just before he was to be sentenced, authorities concluded.
Junior made a deal with prosecutors to testify against Childers in exchange for the promise of a lenient sentence.,
Federal Judges Judith M. Barzilay and Rosemary Barkett, a former Florida Supreme Court justice, ruled that Childers' constitutional right to confront his accuser had been violated.
That's because the late state Circuit Judge Jere Tolton had refused to let Childers' lawyer question Junior about why he had changed testimony he had given at the earlier trial of another defendant who was acquitted.
With Junior deceased, Dershowitz said he doubted the state would retry Childers. Other options would be to ask the full 11th Circuit to rehear the case or appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court.