TAMPA — Russell and Kathleen Kozar hoped to see the face of the man accused of killing their son Doug when they traveled from New York to Tampa for a Wednesday morning court hearing.
They had taken trips to attend earlier hearings in the case against Matthew Moye, a Riverview dentist charged in the deaths of Kozar, 23, and Kate Kohlier, 24. In February they sent a letter to Judge Kimberly Fernandez, asking her to order Moye to be present in the courtroom.
"Our lives have been destroyed by Mr. Moye's actions," the letter read. "We feel that it is only just that we see Mr. Moye in person, and that he sees the parents of the child whose life he took."
Moye faces charges of DUI manslaughter and vehicular homicide related to the Oct. 30 crash. He hit a top speed of 89 mph seconds before hitting Kozar and Kohlier on a Harbour Island bridge, investigators said.
When Moye's name was called at Wednesday's hearing, his attorney, Stephen Romine, stood in his place. Moye was not there. And legally he didn't have to be, according to Florida's rules of criminal procedure.
While defendants are welcome to attend the hearings, their presence is required only for certain trial events, including jury selection, any proceedings in which a jury is present, the rendition of the verdict, and the judgement and sentence.
"I understand they're emotional and they lost somebody, but that doesn't change what the objective rules are," Romine said. "Really it's just based in common sense. Just to show up and be on display is not the point of attending court.
"This is a courtroom. It's not a circus. It's not a photo studio."
Fernandez briefly addressed the letter in the hearing, explaining that the rules allow defendants to waive their appearance.
"All defendants are treated the same," the judge said. "I don't single out or treat anybody any differently."
"It doesn't make me happy," said Cindy Collins, Kohlier's mother, who also attended Wednesday's hearing. "But the judge made it clear it's fine and he can do that."
Judges do have the power to order defendants to attend all hearings in a case, but the issuance of such an order is unusual, said Frances Perrone, a former Hillsborough prosecutor who now practices criminal defense. It could happen in cases in which the defendant has a history of avoiding court appearances, is not represented by an attorney, or if there are other special circumstances.
"If it's something that is predictable, there is no reason to have the client there," Perrone said. "A status conference is really just an opportunity for the judge to verify that the case is progressing."
At the same time, attorneys may have strategic reasons for wanting their clients to attend or not attend court.
Deciding whether to bring a defendant into court before trial is all part of the chess game every defense lawyer plays, said Charles Rose, law professor at Stetson University College of Law in Gulfport. "It's never a one-dimensional game," he said, "it's multidimensional."
Will a defendant's appearance change perceptions of him?
The client could create a negative impression with the judge, even inadvertently. "There's always a risk he will he say something stupid, or he'll smile at the wrong time, or look angry, or look bored."
Conversely, the defendant could help his case if he appeared in some kind of sympathetic light.
"He might have a physical or mental condition his attorney wants to show."
Or he might not seem capable of the crime.
As an example, Rose cited Jennifer Porter, the 28-year-old teacher in Tampa who hit four children crossing a dark street, panicked and drove away as two of them lay dying.
In her court appearances, Porter looked young and scared, "even a bit of a victim herself," Rose said. "Imagine if she looked calm and collected?"
The professor believes her sentence of probation rather than prison may have been a direct result of her sympathetic appearance.
St. Petersburg attorney Jeffrey Brown says defense lawyers will occasionally bring a defendant to court for purposes other than sympathy.
Sometimes a client isn't taking the charges seriously. Sometimes a client believes his high-profile lawyer will get him off no matter what.
"You want a client like that to realize his case serious.
"We call that client control."
Hearing that, Tampa lawyer Ed Suarez said, "That's the best point I've heard so far."
In another case involving intense media attention, Suarez believes the client, Deborah Lafave, 23, may have gotten too much exposure when she was charged with having sex with a 14-year-old boy in 2004.
"To some degree, that exposure added to her notoriety," he said.
Professor Rose disagreed.
He said he believes most people would say she didn't have the "creepy" look of a sex offender.
It's hard to say Lafave didn't get good results from almost nightly TV coverage. Instead of prison, she got house arrest.
One recent proven example of a disastrous court appearance stands out. That was the former teacher Stephanie Ragusa, sentenced last year to 10 years in prison for having sex with two teenage boys.
Most other teachers convicted of similar crimes have probation and house arrest, like Lafave. But Circuit Judge Chet A. Tharpe felt Ragusa, 31, deserved more. His decision partly came down to what he called Ragusa's "arrogance," as embodied in her notorious mug shot smile.
"I've seen you come into this courtroom time and time again," Tharpe told her. "You had a very lackadaisical attitude on your face, smiling, jovial. … I don't know as we stand here today that you truly appreciate the harm that you've caused."
Ragusa listened, holding in tears. She wasn't smiling.
In time, as court cases progress, the loved ones of victims usually do get their chance to confront the accused in court.
"They're going to get their day," attorney Brown said, speaking of the families in the Moye case. "Just not this day."
Dan Sullivan can be reached at (813) 226-3321 or email@example.com. John Barry can be reached at (813) 226-3383 or firstname.lastname@example.org.