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Lawyer's outside advice ruffles court

DADE CITY — To be sure, Tonya Michelle Adams was not quite ready to go to prison.

She wasn't ready to go, even though she was arrested last year and accused of breaking into homes and mailboxes in Dade City and Zephyrhills and engaging in massive identity theft two years ago.

She wasn't ready to go, even though she had agreed to spend 15 years behind bars for 31 charges including burglary, grand theft, forgery and criminal use of personal identification.

She was supposed to plead guilty on Thursday.

Instead, she dug in her heels.

"I don't feel I've been represented by my attorney to the best that could be done," Adams told the court. "I don't think all options have been pursued."

The 31-year-old mother faced up to 160 years in prison — if she had to serve every year of every charge against her.

Yet Adams said that while in jail she called her old lawyer, who told her more could be done with her case. That raised the eyebrows of Circuit Judge Pat Siracusa and her court-appointed attorney, Jorge Angulo.

To the Florida Bar, getting a second opinion from a lawyer is like getting a second opinion from a doctor. It's allowed. But what Adams did seemed to perturb the judge and her lawyer just a bit.

"I don't know how appropriate it is for an attorney to speak to a client they no longer represent," Angulo told the court. "She's just scared, your honor."

Adams felt she was pleading guilty not just to crimes she committed, but to other crimes she didn't commit but did tell detectives about after her February 2007 arrest.

Her victims don't feel that way. Adams told detectives she copied victims' Social Security numbers, telephone numbers and credit card numbers and shared their financial data with others. Her victims say they're not sure if they'll ever stop being victims.

"It is concerning to me that another attorney would speak to you about a case," the judge said, "and would give you advice about things he's not willing to do himself."

The 15-year sentence is the maximum penalty for each of the two second-degree felony burglary charges against Adams. Her lawyer said he'd like to contest those charges in court. But the state combined the other charges with the burglary cases, making a court fight much harder for the defense.

The minimum sentence she faced was 10 years. But the court told Adams she was unlikely to get a better offer than 15 years from the prosecution.

As for the other attorney's opinion, the judge told her this:

"That's kind of like me saying I can lose 20 pounds at the start of football season," Siracusa said, "only I don't do it and I have no intention of doing it. I just say it.

"It's real easy to say something. But it's not true."

Adams then agreed to the 15-year plea bargain. But first she had one more request: a two-day furlough from jail so she can spend time with her children before she goes to prison.

This time it was the judge who dug in his heels.

Request denied.

Jamal Thalji can be reached at thalji@sptimes.com or (727) 869-6236.

Lawyer's outside advice ruffles court 08/28/08 [Last modified: Saturday, August 30, 2008 2:41pm]
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