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Hernando Judge Stephen Rushing served justice with care

BROOKSVILLE — Circuit Judge Stephen Rushing had sentenced hundreds of people just like the man in front of him, standing pale and cuffed in an orange jumpsuit at the courtroom's lectern.

From a DUI conviction to an accusation that he tried to kill a deer out of season, the man's arrest record stretched back to 1994. For the latest charge of attempted trafficking in oxycodone, he pleaded guilty and received two years in prison.

Just minutes into his last full day in court Friday, the soon-to-be-retired judge — measured and thorough — told the prisoner what the plea meant, what rights he was giving up and what was expected of him when he was released. Rushing explained that he would owe more than $1,000 in court costs.

"I realize when you get out of prison you probably won't have money or a job," he told the man in his quiet, steady tone. "But you can just start paying a little bit at a time."

In the jury box, about a dozen private attorneys waited for their clients' cases to be heard. One lawyer tapped his foot on the floor and jotted notes on a pad. Another slouched, his eyes half closed, and rocked from side to side in his swivel chair.

Rushing is known to take a bit more time than other judges. To talk a bit slower and explain a bit longer to defendants what they're facing.

From death-row inmates to folks accused of petty theft, Rushing has always believed the people he judges — usually before him during one of his or her life's worst moments — deserve respect.

"He's always had a big heart. He's always cared," said Pinellas County Judge Thomas Freeman, who's known Rushing since high school. "He was always willing to help people solve their problems."

Rushing has served the public for more than three decades. He has worked as a circuit judge in Hernando County since 2005; before that, he'd been a senior judge in three other circuits and a county judge for 10 years in Pinellas.

Now, the 64-year-old Rushing will step down at the end of this month.

"Hopefully, through the years," he said, "I've been able to touch people in a good way, as they've touched me."

• • •

Two cases during his days as a young assistant public defender in Polk County during the 1970s — one lost and one won — shaped who Rushing has become.

He defended a man accused of raping twin girls. Facing possibly decades in prison, a judge reduced the man's sentence to a misdemeanor after a three-day trial.

As they left the courtroom, Rushing still remembers what his client said to him: "Well, I guess that proves I didn't do it."

In another case, authorities said a man with a lengthy criminal history had burglarized a convenience store with a toy gun.

As Rushing and his client stood for sentencing, the judge announced his decision: 99 years in prison.

"My knees," Rushing remembers, "nearly buckled when he said it."

As he walked with the man to his jail cell, the defendant asked Rushing what the judge had given him.

"When I told him he got 99 years," Rushing said, "the shock hit him."

The two interactions resonated with him. He still remembers the details of those cases and the exact words of his clients.

"The worst thing to me," he said, "would be to walk out of court and not understand what I'd been sentenced to."

Former bailiff Dennis Black remembers some days in court lasting until nearly midnight, but he never recalls Rushing growing irritated.

"He'd worked morning to night to take care of cases," Black said. "He'd sit there and listen. He's a very compassionate man."

• • •

Friday morning, as the judge opened an envelope and pulled out a farewell card from a prosecutor, a smile creased from behind his full white beard. He slipped two pieces of gum in the front pocket of his maroon shirt, and then washed down an energy pill and a couple Motrin with a swig of bottled water.

Favoring one of his knees, Rushing limped to the closet and pulled out his black robe, draping it over his arm.

Health troubles, which he declined to discuss in detail, prompted his retirement. On Friday, Gov. Rick Scott announced that Ocala prosecutor Anthony "Tony" Tatti would replace him on the bench.

Rushing has enjoyed his work as a judge and would have liked to continue for a few years more, but he says he regrets nothing.

It's been hard, at times, to sentence young people to lengthy terms that essentially equated to life imprisonments. Rushing, a Christian, prays each day before court that he makes wise and fair rulings.

"You hurt somebody," he said, "with every decision you make."

A few cases, among the thousands over which he's presided, stick out to him.

Christopher Marcone, a drunk driver in a Dodge pickup, ran a stop sign at the intersection of Park Ridge Road and Sherman Hills Boulevard in a residential neighborhood east of Interstate 75 and plowed into the right side of a van.

In the April 2008 crash, he killed a 13-year-old girl named Shelby Hagman.

For each year of her life, Rushing sentenced Marcone to a year in prison.

"It's not the maximum, which is 15 years," Rushing told the court that day. "But this young lady was cut down in her 13th year."

Rushing also presided over the civil case in which Shelby's mother, Angela Stone, sued Marcone. In what most people in the area believe was a record for Hernando County, a six-person jury awarded Stone more than $330 million in civil damages.

Although Rushing knew the man would never be capable of paying it, he allowed the jurors' decision to stand.

"I felt if it saved just one life, even if it was a symbolic verdict," he said, "it would be worth it."

During his stint as a Pinellas County judge, Rushing presided over the first case under Florida's stalking law.

Frustrated that she couldn't legally prevent an obsessive man from following her daughter, a woman in 1992 went to the Legislature and insisted lawmakers pass a statute, so they did.

Rushing sentenced that same man to jail, and the case was turned into a made-for-TV movie — Moment of Truth: Stalking Back — the next year.

It was surreal, he said, to hear actual words he spoke repeated on television, although Rushing pointed out that the actor who played him had far less hair and, he jokes, was not nearly as good looking.

• • •

After he leaves the bench, Rushing intends to move to the mountains of eastern Tennessee. He will be closer to his four children, one of whom will soon enroll at the University of Tennessee.

He may learn to fish, so he can then teach his grandchildren how to. Rushing also wants to revisit a childhood hobby and do some amateur archaeology.

But mostly, he looks forward to delving back into perhaps his greatest passion — cartooning.

He's published three books of cartoons and sold thousands of copies. His original compilation, published in 1987 and titled A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to Court … , still sat atop a stack of magazines outside his chambers last week.

In all, newspapers and legal publications have printed more than 500 of his cartoons through the years.

The hobby began before a test in a high school Latin class when he drew a student praying to Jupiter for a good grade.

The teacher found it and liked it so much that she submitted it to run in a statewide Latin publication.

"What we do is serious, but we take ourselves too seriously," Rushing said of judges. "You've got to be able to laugh at yourself."

Now and then, people jokingly accuse of him of creating his cartoons in court about the attorneys and defendants over whom he presides.

"I don't draw any cartoons when I'm on the bench," he said, laughing. "Some of them may have unwittingly contributed to them, though."

Information from Times files was used in this report. John Woodrow Cox can be reached at (352) 848-1432 or jcox@sptimes.com.

Hernando Judge Stephen Rushing served justice with care 03/26/11 [Last modified: Saturday, March 26, 2011 12:16pm]

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