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Dispute between court officers breaks out in Hillsborough court

TAMPA — A Hillsborough judge said Thursday she will not hear any cases involving an assistant public defender she called "incompetent and untrustworthy" and accused of "sitting on her butt" during a discussion involving the fate of a juvenile defendant.

Juvenile Court Judge Tracy Sheehan issued an order, obtained by the Tampa Bay Times, saying Assistant Public Defender Kay Murray had a "widespread reputation as an inept supervisor and mean-spirited individual who publicly berates her underlings as 'stupid' and 'idiotic.'"

When asked about the order, Hillsborough Public Defender Julianne Holt said, "I am shocked and disappointed that a Circuit Court judge would enter an order making personal attacks against a veteran attorney who advocates for children day in and day out."

The boiling point came Wednesday, after a bench conference in which the judge said two young assistant public defenders came to an agreement with prosecutors and the Department of Juvenile Justice that could have lessened a young man's sentence.

Part of the deal required keeping the boy locked up for the weekend, the time it would take to finish paperwork; to legally do this, the judge said, the assistant public defenders said the young man would agree that going home posed an "imminent physical threat to his personal safety."

"I remember saying at the bench with them, 'Okay, yeah, we understand that's a stretch,'" Sheehan said. "'If you attorneys are telling me that he is from such a hellish home and there is such animosity, perhaps that is a good enough reason. And perhaps, at the end of the day, you can go home and know that no matter the words, you did what was best for your client.'"

Throughout the discussion at the judge's bench, Murray, the assistant public defenders' supervisor, remained seated and did not participate, Sheehan said.

Later that day, Sheehan said, higher-ranking assistant public defenders returned, saying the boy could not say he was in danger.

Sheehan launched into what public defenders would reference as a "tirade," accusing Murray of "sitting on her butt," and calling her "that lady — and I use that term loosely."

Murray did not respond to calls or email from the Times. But she wrote a motion after the hearing requesting that the judge disqualify herself from the case.

"What prompted the court's wrath," Murray said, "was the fact that the undersigned would not allow the client in that case to sign a document that was false."

She added that Sheehan had exhibited such "animosity and disrespect" for her that the young defendant believed the judge could no longer be fair and impartial.

Holt said she listened to the audio tapes of the two days of proceedings.

"I take strong exception to the factual allegations of what the less-experienced public defenders agreed to do or not do," Holt said. "That is in dispute."

She also said, "If we ourselves realize that anyone is making an error, we have the responsibility to correct it, and we will correct it, and we have no qualms admitting we need to give guidance to less-experienced attorneys. . . .

"Ms. Murray was respectful and professional in the manner in which she addressed the court, and her statements were clear about why we were having to take the position we were on behalf of our client," Holt said. "You don't violate the law, and you don't violate your professional responsibilities and say, 'I did so in my client's best interest.'"

Sheehan said she woke up at 2 a.m. Thursday morning thinking about Murray and what had happened.

She concluded, "Every time I think of this woman, all I think about is a disreputable, incompetent attorney. If I have these feelings, I should recuse myself."

And that meant not just from the boy's case but from every case involving Murray.

The move is unusual, Sheehan admits. Often, when judges have a problem with an attorney, they handle it privately, without orders and proclamations.

But when asked about the order, she explained her reasoning.

"I don't have robe fever," she said. "I'm not nasty. I'm not mean-spirited. I probably scream at somebody once a year."

She said she has gotten reports from people who have seen Murray berate her attorneys as "stupid" and "idiotic."

Holt said she stands by her assistant public defender.

"Ms. Murray has been a long-standing employee in this office," she said. "She's been a misdemeanor chief. She's only been assigned to this judge's courtroom for approximately six weeks. And so any comments that (Sheehan) makes about Ms. Murray's 10-year tenure with our office is without any personal basis whatsoever on her part."

"This is not about me," Sheehan said. "This is about my frustration with a supervisor who would not let her young, impressionable lawyers do what was best for a child's best interest."

The boy was sentenced Thursday to a moderate risk facility, the very outcome Sheehan said all parties at her bench had tried to avoid.

Said Holt: "Our client was well-served by this office."

Times staff writer Sue Carlton contributed to this report. Alexandra Zayas can be reached at azayas@tampabay.com or (813) 226-3354.

Dispute between court officers breaks out in Hillsborough court 06/21/12 [Last modified: Thursday, June 21, 2012 11:35pm]

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