A senior judge in Ocala spent the better part of last week cleaning up the injustice that Citrus County Circuit Judge Ric Howard allowed to occur in a 2005 homicide case. Meanwhile, another Tampa trial judge who saw an injustice in his court corrected the matter himself. The decision by Hillsborough Circuit Judge William Fuente to order a new trial for a defendant accused of murder was right and courageous.
For two days, as St. Petersburg Times staff writer Kevin Graham reported, Fuente watched a young lawyer, Byron T. Christopher, struggle to defend David Rolon, who stood accused of fatally shooting his Tampa neighbor over a parking space. A juror told the Times the attorney seemed to confuse his client on the stand and appeared "unprepared" and "lost" at trial. Fuente waited for a customary defense motion to overturn the conviction or request a new trial. None came, and last week Fuente took the rare step of ordering a new trial on his own, saying Christopher did not render effective counsel. Christopher took exception to the criticism, but it was well-deserved.
The law allows a judge to act if he or she believes a defendant did not receive the constitutional guarantee of competent legal assistance. Fuente's finding that Rolon did not receive a fair trial shocked some attorneys, but the move was in keeping with a jurist who has been a go-to judge for his colleagues in Hillsborough.
Fuente reminded attorneys how responsible they are for ensuring their clients receive due process. And he reminded judges that they are responsible for ensuring the system works. In this case, thanks to him, it did.