Pinellas County's top prosecutor said Thursday he is "dumbfounded" at the way his office handled the case of Craig Wall, accused of fatally stabbing his girlfriend after being released on $1,000 bail in a domestic violence case.
Bernie McCabe, state attorney for Pinellas and Pasco counties, said his staff needs to be reminded of fundamental principles that were not followed in this case.
His chief assistant, Bruce Bartlett, plans to meet today with prosecutors who handle misdemeanor hearings.
"They are being paid to be advocates and not just stand there with their hands in their pockets," Bartlett said.
Wall is accused of stabbing to death Laura Taft, 29, early Wednesday after kicking in the sliding glass door of her apartment. He was arrested hours later in Sumter County, where he was passed out in the driver's seat of a red four-door car.
Two days earlier, Wall was released from the Pinellas County Jail on a $1,000 bond after a bail hearing. No one at the hearing mentioned that Wall was a suspect in the death of his 5-week-old son this month, even though police had noted that fact in the arrest affidavit. They also failed to point out that Wall had spent 14 years in prison on charges related to an armed robbery.
"I think the judge should have been made aware of these other factors," McCabe said Thursday in his first public comments on the case.
Taft's sister-in-law, Nicole Bredeson, 26, was more direct.
"In my opinion that is a fatal error," she said. "My sister's life was worth more than $1,000. I think just about anybody can see how wrong that decision was."
The case stems from Wall's arrest Feb. 14 on a charge that he violated an injunction Taft took out against him because, she said, she feared for her life.
On Sunday, Wall showed up at a memorial service for his 5-week-old son. Taft said he drove through the parking lot and "flipped her off." He was arrested and initially held without bail.
The next morning, he came to his "first appearance" hearing, where judges inquire about the case and determine if there is sufficient cause to continue holding a defendant in jail; and sometimes modify their bail amount.
McCabe and Bartlett cited three problems with how an assistant state attorney handled the case during this hearing. First, he offered to settle the case during this initial hearing without spending more time to gather more facts. Second, he failed to bring up Wall's criminal record. Third, he did not mention that Wall was considered a suspect in the death of his own child.
"What kind of stunned me about the whole thing," McCabe said, was that the prosecutor offered the plea deal to Wall. That was not the right thing to do in a first court appearance in a domestic violence-related case, McCabe said, because the hearing happens within 24 hours of an arrest, typically before a prosecutor has done much research about the case and has had a good interview with the victim.
"You want to gather all the facts" before making an offer, Bartlett said.
McCabe said a plea arrangement in a first appearance hearing would have been acceptable in a minor shoplifting case, for example, but not in a case with a potential victim of domestic violence.
The assistant state attorney, James Flynn, suggested a deal in which Wall would have been found guilty of the charge, paid $650 and agreed to have no contact with Taft.
But Wall rejected the offer, saying to Circuit Judge George Jirotka, "No, sir, I didn't do anything wrong, sir."
Because Wall rejected the offer, the next matter was to discuss whether to set bail. He had been held overnight without bail because it was a domestic violence-related case. So next the lawyers discussed whether Wall could be released on bail.
The prosecutor, Flynn, suggested a $2,500 bail — high for a misdemeanor case. The public defender asked for a $500 bail. Jirotka set it at $1,000.
But Flynn did not mention that Wall, 34, was released from prison in September 2008 after serving 14 years for a 1993 robbery with a deadly weapon, armed burglary and grand theft auto.
The prosecutor's records included notes on this prior record, officials said, but he didn't bring them up during the hearing.
Wall's arrest affidavit also said he "was suspected of being the one responsible for the infant's death."
This was a reference to an ongoing investigation. Clearwater police say Wall's baby was in his care on Feb. 5 at a Clearwater apartment when the boy went into cardiac arrest and was taken to All Children's Hospital in St. Petersburg. Craig Wall Jr. was removed from life support and died the next morning.
The prosecutor didn't bring this up either.
McCabe said he would communicate strongly to his staff the need to address these fundamental issues in court hearings.
But he also added that, "One of the hardest things to train is common sense. To me this whole thing smacks of a lack of common sense."
Bartlett said he would remind attorneys of the need to be vigilant.
"It's our worst nightmare for something like this to happen," he said. "The judges, the prosecutors all live in fear of somebody going out and doing something like this."
Times staff writer Rita Farlow contributed to this report.