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Mixed verdicts in prostitution sting cases

William Wood, 27, reacts to being found guilty of solicitation of prostitution in Hernando County Court Monday. He was sentenced to 60 days in jail and fined $1,200.

William Wood, 27, reacts to being found guilty of solicitation of prostitution in Hernando County Court Monday. He was sentenced to 60 days in jail and fined $1,200.

BROOKSVILLE — The prostitution parade began Monday at the Hernando County courthouse as a jury convicted the first and acquitted the second of 10 men standing trial this week for soliciting an undercover police officer who posed as a prostitute.

The first verdict came after 40 minutes of deliberation and despite the defense attorney's blistering condemnation of the Brooksville Police Department for its "incredible errors" and questionable financial motives during the sting.

County Judge Donald Scaglione sentenced William Wood, 27, Lecanto, to the maximum 60 days in county jail and more than $1,200 in fees and civil fines. Wood was given credit for time he already served behind bars on unrelated charges.

"I think that it vindicates BPD's investigation," prosecutor Matthew Pila said of the conviction. "The testimony was solid. They are good cases."

The jury in the second case of the day, against Isaac Fuentes-Figueroa, 25, of Brooksville, obviously felt differently.

The six-member panel heard a similar set of facts and similar challenges before considering the case for 50 minutes and returning a not guilty verdict at 6:15 p.m.

These cases, though just second-degree misdemeanors, are getting significant attention. The Police Department trumpeted the weeklong operation in September and the state attorney's office is aggressively pursuing charges, despite numerous concerns about entrapment cited by defense attorneys and state budgetary constraints.

In some ways, observers believe the trials collectively are serving as a referendum on the competence of the Police Department.

A total of 32 men were caught in "Operation Working Woman" from Sept. 11 to Sept. 16. The first 10 heading to court this week are represented by Assistant Public Defender Laura Drake. Most of the remaining defendants have private counsel.

In both cases Monday, Drake did not broach entrapment, a legal defense that applies when the police officer's actions induce a person to commit a crime. But the argument is expected to play a large role in other cases.

Instead, she cast doubt on the sting by noting how the Police Department made $200 in fees on each bust when they impounded the vehicles of those they arrested.

"The reason that these cops did such sloppy work is they didn't care about making the arrest," Drake told jurors in the first case. "They got $200 cash. … They didn't care about accuracy; that wasn't their motivation."

From the prosecutor's perspective, the cases were relatively simple.

Pila's opening statement describing the circumstances of Wood's arrest took less than two minutes. Wood, he said, approached the undercover female officer in his car behind a gas station at 10:45 a.m. on Sept. 11 and offered her $20 for oral sex. Fuentes-Figueroa reportedly made the same offer, police said.

The details, Drake noted, are more complicated.

In Wood's case, she explained that her client was just flirting with Nix and invited her to a friend's party.

"Mr. Wood is not interested in paying for sex," Drake told jurors. "Mr. Wood was involved in a completely innocent behavior talking to a pretty girl."

In questioning Nix and Officer Shawn Terry, the public defender determined that Nix was first to bring up money for sex.

The prosecutor later countered that "Officer Nix did start that conversation, but there's nothing wrong with that because she didn't approach him."

Drake also elicited a number of concessions from the officers who acknowledged they had made mistakes in preparing sworn statements describing the arrest.

Among the errors, Terry wrote that Wood agreed to pay $20 for sex, but later testified it was in fact oral sex. The officer also put $10 instead of $20 on another document. In other charging documents, Terry wrote down the wrong state statute for arresting Wood and the wrong driver's license number.

"The cops can't even get their stories straight," Drake said, noting that the arrest reports were preprinted with just four blanks to describe each arrest. "It was preordained. It was already determined by the cops. … It was a fill-in-the-blank assembly line."

In the end, both cases largely concentrated on the audio recording of the encounter, which was barely audible.

The jurors heard the audio — secretly recorded using a radio transmitter tucked in Nix's cleavage — once during the trial and then asked to hear it twice more when they were deliberating.

The second jury also listened three times, huddling close to the speakers and listening intently to hear the words necessary to make a determination of guilt.

A community college student studying law enforcement who watched the first trial turned to a classmate and whispered, "We can put a man on the moon, but we can't get a better audio than that."

Apparently, for the first jury panel, the tape was adequate, in combination with the officers' testimony, to find Wood guilty. The law enforcement student reached a different conclusion about the police work in the case: "This is (an example of) exactly what not to do," he remarked.

John Frank can be reached at jfrank@sptimes.com or (352) 754-6114.

Mixed verdicts in prostitution sting cases 11/17/08 [Last modified: Wednesday, November 19, 2008 1:06pm]
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