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Pick a lawyer, pick a court

Like a movie house, the Citrus County Court is running shows in two theaters these days. Where you sit, though, depends more on your bankroll than your taste in films.

Check your ticket. People charged with misdemeanor or traffic offenses who are represented by a public defender are ushered to a seat in front of Judge Gary Graham.

People facing the same charges _ but who have money enough to hire lawyers who have been banned from Graham's court _ are escorted to Circuit Judge John Thurman's courtroom.

Meanwhile, out in the audience, everyone is waiting for the show to finish and for their court system to start working.

That's the way life in the Citrus court system has been for months, ever since since the Judicial Qualifications Commission started sniffing around this area's most controversial jurist.

The group has charged Graham with various counts of misconduct concerning what he has said, done and tried to do during five years on the bench. More charges appear to be coming.

Added to that mix have been accusations of improper investigations and unfairness. There have been orders and motions and appeals, rumors and statements and appearances on cable television.

Most of all there has been confusion. And no one is sure when it will end.

For now, the two-tiered court system stands as the most glaring evidence of the problem.

The differences in Graham and Thurman's styles and sentencing practices are so striking that the split-screen justice system may be unfair, not to mention confusing and burdensome, some officials say.

People essentially can buy their way out of Graham's court.

Those with court-appointed lawyers, though, receive no option. They get Graham.

Public Defender Skip Babb has considered asking Graham to step down from all cases involving his clients if the situation gets much worse.

"The problem will come if the private bar is able to negotiate sentences that are different than their counterparts in the public sector," said Babb, whose office represents indigent clients in Citrus and four surrounding counties.

Graham already has banned lawyers Charles Horn, Johnnye Friedrich and Barbara Gurrola from his court. The judge has conducted high-profile feuds with all three attorneys in recent times.

Then last week, an appellate judge cleared the way for four more lawyers, and possibly a dozen more, to handle their cases away from Graham's court because the judge had targeted them as part of some private "investigation."

But no such decrees exist for Babb and his staff. So they and their clients remain in Graham's court.

"We now have close to a 50/50" split between the two judges, said Liz Osmond, the prosecutor who handles cases in both courts.

On Monday, for example, Thurman is scheduled to consider county court cases involving 10 defendants; his felony docket has 48 names on it.

Ordinarily, such a division wouldn't make much difference, officials say. But Graham has a reputation as a tough judge, not hesitant to dole out substantial jail terms. Thurman, while no pushover, is regarded as more consistent.

That fear of the unknown in Graham's court has resulted in a business boom for the three lawyers who don't practice before him _ and a drop in work for those advocates who do.

Joe LaFrantz certainly considered that issue when he went looking for a lawyer earlier this year.

Authorities arrested LaFrantz the night of May 17 after watching him drive a friend's motorcycle 100 mph along U.S. 19 in Homosassa Springs, court records show.

He was charged with fleeing and eluding a police officer, reckless driving and driving drunk. LaFrantz visited one local lawyer, Paul Hawkes, and didn't like what he heard.

"Hawkes was telling me that there was a chance I could do a little jail time because of the fleeing and eluding. He (Graham) does not like people running away from cops," LaFrantz said.

So LaFrantz, a 34-year-old car dealership worker from Crystal River, asked friends for advice. "Everybody you talk to . . . they said you need to go to Horn."

Horn signed onto the case and it immediately was shifted to Thurman's court.

The result: a plea deal that called for LaFrantz to serve six months' probation, pay fines and complete 50 hours' community work.

"I think he got a sentence that was commensurate with other first-time offenders within this circuit," Horn said. "I don't think he would have gotten that sentence in Graham's court. I think he would have been treated unfairly" and been sentenced to "significant time in jail."

LaFrantz says he's happy.

"I just didn't want to take a chance. I've got a family. I just think it was the best chance," he said.

Like the other lawyers, Horn said he's not exploiting his unusual business edge.

"What's created the great demand? The public perception of how the court operates and the fear they have," Horn said. "If you have a judge who's not fit to be on the bench, and there's an alternative, I think people should know about that."

Friedrich said her business, and the number of visits from potential clients, definitely have grown.

She remembered one client charged for the fourth time with driving on a suspended license. Thurman sentenced him to a stiff jail sentence, perhaps more harsh than the one Graham would have doled out.

"Judge Thurman is not a lenient judge at all," Friedrich said. "But he (the client) was treated with respect, and I think that's the difference.

"He (Thurman) is sane. He treats defendants and counsel with respect. He does not belittle or humiliate anyone in his courtroom," she said.

On the other side of the fence are lawyers such as Charles Vaughn, who specializes in criminal law. He still practices in Graham's court. That is, when clients come his way.

"Yes, I can feel the impact, and yes, it's noticeable," Vaughn said.

Vaughn was not one of the lawyers whose driving record Graham examined in late August. That distinction has become the ticket out of Graham's court.

About that same time, the judge asked to see criminal records, vehicle-registration information and other documents pertaining to 20 or so local lawyers and their relatives.

Four lawyers on that list _ James Spindler, Patricia Vitter, Cliff Travis and Glen Abbott _ asked that Graham step down from their respective cases. They and their clients argued that Graham could not give them a fair shake because they were on his "investigation list."

Graham refused to step down, but an appellate judge, Raymond McNeal, ordered him to do so. He granted the lawyers' requests, though Graham is appealing that decision.

Why the appeal? Because McNeal's ruling prohibits him from looking for favoritism in the court system and exposing it.

If the appeal is unsuccessful, then the four lawyers will be out of Graham's court for good. The same probably will go for the other lawyers whose driving records were reviewed.

The JQC charges probably won't be resolved until next year. The commission must hold a formal hearing and offer Graham a chance to defend himself.

If Graham is found guilty, then the commission will make one of three recommendations to the Florida Supreme Court: do nothing; issue a reprimand; or kick Graham off the bench.

Until that's over, people such as David Folwell are struggling to make their way through the system.

The 27-year-old Crystal River man is charged with possessing marijuana and drug paraphernalia as well as disturbing the peace, court records show. All three charges are misdemeanors.

Fellow defendants "told me that you didn't want to go in front of him (Graham), that he was like a hanging judge," Folwell said. "They said if you got a different lawyer, you could go in front of a judge who was a little easier."

Days after his arrest, Folwell contacted the law firm of Gurrola and Hurm. "He said if I was with their firm that I wouldn't have to go in front of Judge Graham," he said.

"That was enough for me."