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Sansom trial leaves prosecutor with a weird aftertaste

Willie Meggs was born in Tallahassee, the capital of his state and the place he grew up to put bad guys away during the workweek and teach Sunday school on Sundays.

This was where they began the trial he considers so important to the town: the case against former House Speaker Ray Sansom and developer and campaign contributor Jay Odom, accused of a scheme to get $6 million in state money for an airport building to be used by Odom's jet business.

Or, as the cynical might say, allegations of bidness as usual in Tallahassee.

Today marks one week since a judge uttered the words that led to the end of that trial, when he said he did not think Meggs' prosecution had enough to show a conspiracy.

People are still talking.

"I was just at the dentist this morning. Had a cavity filled," Meggs said. "The people at the dentist's office are saying, 'I can't believe the judge did that.' "

He hears it on the phone, in the store — though, he acknowledges, his enemies and those who say the abrupt ending was justice are not the ones calling him.

At 67, Meggs is no stranger to politics or the courthouse. He was a cop before he was state attorney, which he has been seven times now. Expect him to run again.

I ask about a small but interesting fact I heard about him: That he does not drink. True, he says, and then jokes, "I've thought about taking it up."

Meggs just finished the death penalty trial of a man convicted of murdering a nurse whose beheaded body was found in a national forest. Even a terrible, violent homicide is easier to prosecute than a case like Sansom's. "Here, you're talking paper and nuance," he says.

"I think this was probably one of the more important cases that we'll ever try in this circuit," he says.

Because here is the kind of thing that bothers him: When it rains heavily at the elementary school where his daughter teaches physical education — and it happens, this being Florida — there is no gym for the kids to go to. "We don't have money to build them a facility, but we have money to build an airplane hangar," Meggs says.

The road to trial was a long one. The original charge of official misconduct was largely dismissed, but Meggs doggedly came back with grand theft and conspiracy.

And even a grand jury seemed to have hopes for changing Tallahassee, concluding its 2009 report: Your Grand Jurors recommend to The Legislature that it clean up this process and that the State of Florida become an example to the Nation as a State that works for the people and not the special interest of those who have money to influence the Legislature.

Which was a nice thought, anyway.

When the judge said mid-trial he wasn't seeing a conspiracy, Meggs saw a directed verdict of acquittal coming. He salvaged what he could, dropping charges but getting Sansom and Odom to each pay $103,000 in restitution. There is some satisfaction in that.

Afterward, Sansom claimed victory and said he would not change anything he had done.

As it turns out, neither would the man who was determined Sansom should be held responsible.

It's simple, really.

"This stuff," says the man from Tallahassee, "needs to be cleaned up."

Sansom trial leaves prosecutor with a weird aftertaste 03/31/11 [Last modified: Thursday, March 31, 2011 8:28pm]
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