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Graham pops the question in court

Joel Steele came to court asking to get out of jail. He almost wound up getting married.

Marriage again became the central topic in County Judge Gary Graham's court Tuesday, one day after the judge refused to approve a plea bargain because the defendant wanted to live with his girlfriend without getting married.

A tug-of-war is developing between Graham and Assistant Public Defender Claire Molchan, who argues that it's discriminatory to treat unmarried couples and married couples differently.

Graham replies that defense attorneys can't argue that defendants should be released from jail because they are married and have families to support and then argue in other cases that being unmarried doesn't mean anything.

On Tuesday, Steele presented Graham with commendatory letters from a prisoners rehabilitation group and asked to be released from a one-year sentence related to failing to make payments on a videocassette recorder.

In response to Graham's questioning, the 29-year-old man told the judge that his plans to get married were delayed when he was jailed Sept. 1. That prompted Graham to ask Molchan whether she considered Steele's marriage plans a mitigating factor in his request for release.

Molchan, with some reluctance, said yes.

Then Graham called forth Steele's fiancee, whose name was not available late Tuesday, and began asking her a series of questions, including this exchange:

Graham: "You're getting ready to have a baby?"

Fiancee: "Yes, sir."

Graham: "Is it getting bigger?"

Fiancee: "Yes, sir."

Graham: "Do you have another baby?"

Fiancee: "Yes, sir."

Graham: "By him?"

Fiancee: "No, sir."

Graham: "By somebody else?"

Fiancee: "It was a divorce."

Graham: "Do you want to get married."

Fiancee: "Absolutely."

Graham then invited the couple to step forward immediately and get married in his courtroom. He stopped when he realized the couple didn't have a marriage certificate from the court clerk's office.

He then ordered Steele's case continued until this afternoon and instructed the Sheriff's Office to take Steele to the clerk's office to get a marriage certificate and bring him back to court this morning.

"Your honor, there wouldn't be any chance of us at least being able to, for me to be mitigated and be out and give us a week or somthing so we could have our family present at it and have a small ceremony?" Steele inquired.

Graham agreed to suspend Steele's sentence for eight days, releasing him from jail temporarily, and then rehear Steele's request for a permanent release in one week.

Steele wanted to know whether Graham would marry him in court next week or if he should return to court married. Graham stressed that he isn't telling Steele to get married.

"If you want to be single on Tuesday, that's fine with me," Graham said. "If you want to be married on Tuesday, that's fine with me. If you're single, I still may mitigate your sentence."

Attempts to locate Steele, who has left his Lecanto address since his arrest, and his fiancee were unsuccessful.