LARGO — Pinellas-Pasco Circuit Judge Philip Federico was speaking at a court hearing on Wednesday when Randy Lee Sparklin started talking over him.
That didn't last long.
"Go ahead and get him muzzled so we can bring him back in," Federico said to courtroom deputies. As they led Sparklin out, he shouted to prosecutors, "You burn in hell!"
Sparklin had made a series of outbursts during a trial in March in which he was convicted of vehicular homicide and other charges.
When deputies brought Sparklin back into the courtroom on Wednesday, his mouth was covered with what appeared to be duct tape.
It was a rare but not unprecedented case of a judge attempting to silence a disruptive defendant. In this case, the attempt wasn't completely effective — Sparklin kept right on arguing through his taped mouth.
"You guys need to go back to the drawing board on the whole tape thing," Federico told the courtroom deputies.
Robert Batey, a professor at the Stetson University College of Law, said the U.S. Supreme Court has upheld the practice of gagging defendants in some cases. He referred to a memorable case from decades ago when a judge ordered Black Panther Bobby Seale to be gagged during a trial.
In cases like this, judges face a balancing act: On one hand, some defendants are so disruptive that it's difficult for the court case to proceed. On the other hand, defendants generally have a right to be present in court. Gagging a defendant is a way to keep the court case moving, with the defendant in the courtroom.
Pinellas-Pasco Chief Judge Thomas McGrady would not comment on this specific case, but did comment in general on the practice of preventing a defendant from speaking in court.
"It's done rarely, but sometimes it's the most appropriate way to allow (a defendant) to stay but not be disruptive."
Chief Assistant State Attorney Bruce Bartlett said Sparklin had repeatedly been disruptive in previous court proceedings, apparently attempting "to turn it into a big circus." He said Federico showed "a high level of restraint in dealing with him."
Sparklin, 49, was arrested in 2008 after fleeing from police in a Nissan SUV, crashing into another SUV, and then smashing into a downtown Clearwater building. Odysseas Liakopoulos, one of the passengers in the SUV that was hit, was killed in the crash.
Curtis Krueger can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 893-8232.