LARGO — The chief judge came to court on Wednesday — not to hear a case, but to sit in the witness stand and testify.
That's just one of the quirks in the escape trial of Nydeed Nashaddai, who is accused of using phony paperwork to spring himself out of the Pinellas County Jail last year.
Nashaddai, 45, was in jail last October awaiting trial on forgery charges. He somehow created a phony judge's order that looked realistic enough to get him released, prosecutors said.
The ruse, if that's what it was, won him 16 hours of freedom. It could cost him up to 15 years in prison if he's convicted.
Defense attorney Steve Bartlett said Nashaddai was erroneously released because of a mistake in the State Attorney's Office. But prosecutors said Nashaddai orchestrated the plan.
As evidence, they played recordings of Nashaddai's conversations with his wife and a friend from jail visits and phone calls. In one, Nashaddai pleaded with his wife to send him documents similar to the bogus one that later got him released. Doctored documents were later found in a jail computer that Nashaddai had access to. And the bogus document that was ultimately filed in the court system had Nashaddai's fingerprints on it, prosecutors said.
In one recording, Nashaddai talked to a friend who said he had filed some paperwork for Nashaddai at the Pinellas County Clerk's Office. "You're a lifesaver. I'll call you when I get out," Nashaddai told him, laughing. His friend said: "I was scared as s---, man." In another, Nashaddai got his wife to transfer a call to the Clerk's Office, and he then posed as an attorney, trying to make sure the paperwork had been properly filed.
The bogus document that got Nashaddai released appeared to be signed by Pinellas-Pasco Circuit Judge Thomas McGrady. He testified that he did not preside in any hearing in Nashaddai's case and certainly never ordered his release.
"The signature kind of looks like my signature, but this is not my order," McGrady said.
Bartlett asked if McGrady might have signed the document thinking it was genuine. McGrady said for that to happen, someone would have needed to present the order to him and told him that attorneys on both sides agreed to the order.
When Bartlett asked if that were possible, McGrady said in a skeptical tone, "It's possible."
McGrady later told a reporter this was the first time he had taken the witness stand because of his duties as a judge. He acknowledged feeling "a little anxiety" as he was questioned.
"I think that is a good lesson for the court," he said. "Judges and lawyers should know that people do get anxiety when they testify."
An assistant public defender and an assistant state attorney previously testified in the case, also saying the document that let Nashaddai out of jail was bogus.