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Prosecutors miffed with Hernando judge's ruling in bench trial

BROOKSVILLE — Two months ago, a jury deadlocked in the case against Tony Lamont Sanders. Circuit Judge Stephen Rushing declared a mistrial.

This rarely happens in Hernando County — especially when a law enforcement officer takes the stand to positively identify the accused as the man he saw driving a stolen car and fleeing police.

What transpired next is even more rare. And now the county's chief prosecutor said it won't happen again — at least not in Rushing's courtroom.

After the hung jury, Sanders, 34, requested a bench trial, where the judge acts as the lone fact-finder instead of a six-member jury. His defense attorney advised against it; prosecutors didn't object and even smiled.

The daylong trial commenced Monday, and it was not a clear-cut case. In the end, Rushing found Sanders not guilty of grand theft, reckless driving and fleeing and eluding police. The judge found him guilty of resisting arrest but the sentence allowed for Sanders' immediate release.

Prosecutor Tim Barrett described his reaction this way:

"Shocked," he said. "Shocked that a judge would not believe the testimony of an officer who in his mind clearly identified this guy."

Assistant State Attorney Don Barbee, the Hernando office supervisor, reacted similarly. He declared this week that his office would reject all requests for bench trials in front of Rushing. (Both defense and prosecutors must agree to a bench trial.)

"That will be the last one," Barbee said in an interview. "Because it's obvious the judge is uncomfortable being the trier of fact."

The decree surprised Rushing, but he said "that's their prerogative."

"I think they knew it was a pretty weak case," the judge said in an interview. "It was a tough decision to make because there was evidence going both ways."

It was only the second time Rushing handled a bench trial. The former Pinellas County judge joined the Hernando bench as one of two felony judges in 2005, an appointment of then-Gov. Jeb Bush.

His first bench trial came a year into his tenure and ended with the conviction of notorious felon Tommy Lee. Rushing sent Lee to prison for 25 years. Barbee called that ruling "excellent."

Like Lee, Sanders' name and face are known by nearly every officer around Brooksville. But authorities had less to convict Sanders.

Assistant Public Defender Devon Sharkey, who handled both cases, managed to easily dismiss the testimony of an eyewitness in Sanders' case. The felon had bad eyesight and much to gain from cooperating with authorities. Sharkey then focused on the legitimacy of the Brooksville police officer's identification of his client.

He noted that Officer Darren Bridges was relatively new to the department on Sept. 14, the day of the arrest, and allegedly saw Sanders speeding in the stolen red Suzuki twice, but it was for a combined five seconds and from a distance. On the radio, the officer also named Sanders as a "possible" suspect.

Sanders was arrested by a sheriff's deputy a good distance away on Twigg Street because he matched the vague description of the suspect: black male, no shirt, shorts.

The judge highlighted these points in a lengthy explanation that accompanied his ruling. Rushing, a former prosecutor, said he believed the officer's testimony, but felt he mistakenly identified the wrong man.

Overall, he said, the prosecution didn't meet its burden to dispel any reasonable doubt.

"If the facts aren't there," Rushing said, "I have to rule, as I do, to the best of my ability."

John Frank can be reached at jfrank@sptimes.com or (352) 754-6114.

Prosecutors miffed with Hernando judge's ruling in bench trial 01/30/09 [Last modified: Friday, January 30, 2009 8:23pm]
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