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Former judge hardens stand on sealing files

Published Oct. 12, 2005

As a Hillsborough circuit judge, Harry Lee Coe III sealed court cases _ sometimes for defendants with multiple convictions.

The sealings allowed defendants to hide criminal histories, but Coe says he was just doing his job as a judge and following the law.

As a candidate for Hillsborough state attorney, Coe has reversed his position on sealing court files since announcing in March that he would challenge State Attorney Bill James. On Monday, Coe said that as state attorney he would oppose sealing defendants' records. Period.

"I'm being clear now: I'm against it," Coe said in an interview with the Times editorial board. "If that's a change, it's a change."

It is.

Florida's sealing law was written to give first-time offenders a second chance, but on the bench Coe, who has since retired, sealed as many as four charges for some defendants. In 1980, for example, Coe sealed two drug cases and two sex crimes involving children for Thomas Elbert Richmond, who later became a high school teacher in Orlando.

Last week, Coe said he couldn't recall "what happened back in 1980" but "as I recall, this was a person who had no prior record, (and) who had graduated from college after serving a successful term on probation or community control."

In fact, Richmond had also been convicted of soliciting a prostitute before the sealings.

Coe said he would have to review the transcripts of court hearings and see what was presented at the time.

"The sealing law is extremely complicated, and it's changed, it's changed, it's changed, and, if I recall, it was 1980 when a lot of the change was going on."

Coe said the Legislature has made it clear that certain cases should be sealed. On that point, his opinion has not changed.

As a candidate, however, it has.

On April 10, Coe told the Tampa Tiger Bay Club that "when a judge says, "I'm going to seal this file, I'm not going to shackle this person with this crime, this non-violent crime, for the rest of their lives,' we're going to have the courage to say, "Judge, we support you. We have the courage to support you as you go out on a limb.'


Last week, he reaffirmed that as a prosecutor he would consider not objecting to sealing defendants' court files "if they

have atoned for their past minor offense, (and) served successfully their term on probation or community control."

On Monday, Coe said he had given the subject more thought and said that as state attorney he would oppose sealing defendants' records in all cases.

Coe's reversal came just as the race is expected to heat up. Coe, a Democrat, suggested that as early as this week he might begin to release position papers on the way James, a Republican, runs the state attorney's office.

On other issues, Coe acknowledged that appeals judges have overturned his decisions more than those of other judges in Hillsborough. He said, however, that prosecutors share some of the responsibility for those decisions because they provided the legal justifications for sentences more harsh than called for by state guidelines.

Coe acknowledged being overturned 178 times for exceeding the guidelines _ about as much as all of Hillsborough's other judges combined _ as well as being reversed 22 times for sentencing defendants to hard labor and six times for giving sentences more lenient than sentencing guidelines called for.

"I don't apologize for exceeding the guidelines," he said.

Despite hardening his position on sealing court cases, Coe said the race between him and State Attorney Bill James will not be about who is tougher on criminals.

"This is not a race about who's put the most people in jail and who's going to put the most people in jail," he said.

Rather, he renewed his call for the creation of a multiagency public safety council, similar to Palm Beach County's, that would come up with a coordinated community plan on crime prevention and related issues.

On the much-publicized investigation of Key Bank, Coe declined to join the critics of James who say the case is politically motivated.

Instead, he said the evidence gathered by the 10-agency task force investigating fraud, racketeering and money-laundering will show what's behind the investigation. Until then, he said he is "not running my mouth about something I don't know about."

"I've been in no position to know whether that's politically motivated or not," he said. "I think the bottom line is going to be the evidence."