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Fairness makes special appearance in court

Spend too much time around criminal courtrooms, and you can find yourself getting cynical.

You might start thinking of defendants in categories, like possibly guilty, guilty of previous crimes if not this one, probably guilty, and guilty as sin.

Sure, sometimes you'll see the wrongly accused and the genuinely innocent. Most days, what plays out in those courtrooms tends to be in shades of gray.

So it seems remarkable when someone inside the justice system says: Wait. Whether this guy did it or not, what's happening here isn't fair.

Case in point: A guy you probably never heard of named David Rolon, listed in jail records as a self-employed contractor, sat in one of those courtrooms recently facing a second-degree murder charge.

Rolon was accused of shooting his neighbor in a quarrel over a parking space, a terrible and mundane case, and the kind not likely to get much press.

From the bench, Hillsborough Circuit Judge William Fuente listened as the young lawyer defending Rolon told the jury he had talked with his client about his court testimony for less than five minutes.

The judge watched what he would later describe as an unprepared defendant who obviously didn't even know what his own lawyer was going to ask him. He saw the accused making "unsolicited prejudicial statements" on the witness stand.

And the jury? Guilty, so say we all.

The judge waited for the regular post-trial motions, like one asking for a new trial, but none came. In the judge's mind, Rolon didn't have effective counsel. The accused had been denied a fair shake.

So the judge set aside the verdict, took the lawyer off the case and ordered up a new trial.

This was especially unusual because it happened sua sponte, a neat Latin phrase that means the judge did it on his own without a lawyer asking him to. (Fun term to impress your friends: "Hey, Bill, I see the wife finally got you to paint the house." "Oh, no, I did that sua sponte.")

As is his custom, Fuente did this without fanfare, just doing his job. And still, it was remarkable.

A few counties away came the case of William Thornton, who was a teenager when he ran a stop sign in a Citrus County crash that killed two people. Some saw injustice in Thornton's 30-year prison sentence, notably Steve Romine of Barry Cohen's law firm.

Romine took on Thornton's cause for free, arguing Thornton was ill-advised into pleading no contest by his public defender. Wednesday, a judge threw out the conviction, ordered a new trial and released Thornton from jail.

It's important to note both Thornton and Rolon still face serious charges. But each of them also got a new shot at a fair shake.

Because only when the rules apply to everyone equally and without emotion — a suspected killer illegally searched, a rape suspect not read his rights, you or me wrongfully accused — do the rules have any meaning.

Those headlines were good news. But they also make you wonder how many others have been swallowed by the system, nameless and faceless and — at least in some part —wronged.

Still, a remarkable thing happened this week: The justice system didn't work, and then maybe it did.

Fairness makes special appearance in court 12/18/08 [Last modified: Monday, December 22, 2008 12:45pm]
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