Officials in the law enforcement and legal community are working to ensure that Stefanie June Butler gets a fair trial on charges she kidnapped, threatened and tried to extort $20,000 from a Citrus County widow Friday.
Although officials told the Times on Monday that Butler's connection to the county's chief judge _ she is the younger sister of Circuit Judge Patricia Thomas _ will notaffect her pending court case, special provisions must be taken to avoid any appearance of conflict.
"The appearance of impropriety is really what's governing everything here," said Ric Ridgway, chief assistant state attorney of the 5th Judicial Circuit.
"It's not that any judge would treat it differently or that we would," Ridgway said. "We have to avoid even the appearance of impropriety. So it's got to be handled by people with no involvement with Judge Thomas."
Butler, 38, was arrested after authorities say she kidnapped a prominent Citrus County widow at gunpoint and attempted to extort $20,000 from her by threatening to blow up her home and the homes of family members.
She is charged with extortion, armed kidnapping, armed burglary, fleeing and attempting to elude, resisting without violence, reckless driving and grand theft auto.
Anyone in the legal community who has worked with Thomas will not take part in Butler's trial; that potentially eliminates all workers in Citrus County's judicial system.
Butler's defense attorney, prosecutor and the presiding judge may have to come from elsewhere.
Because of her relationship with the county's highest jurist, special precautions also may be taken by officials at the Citrus County Detention Center, where Butler is being held on $44,750 bail.
"If the need comes up, we would separate her from the rest of the population for her protection," Assistant Warden Randy Payne said.
Thomas called Warden Jack Waldron on Monday to inform the jail of the family tie.
When Butler enters a plea on the criminal charges at her arraignment April 7, Circuit Judge Michael Blackstone said he probably will recuse himself from the case.
That case then will go to Circuit Judge William Swigert, chief judge of the 5th Judicial Circuit in Ocala. He will either reassign the case to another judge in the circuit or send it to Gov. Lawton Chiles for reassignment to a judge from another circuit.
Ridgway said he may prosecute Butler's case or assign it to an assistant state attorney from another county who does not regularly deal with Thomas.
Public Defender Howard "Skip" Babb said that if his office is called on to represent Butler, he will do the same thing: find a criminal defense attorney from another county.
"I don't see any problem with defending her if we are assigned the case," Babb said. "My job is hard enough, if I got off all the cases that were difficult, I wouldn't have anything to do."
But unless Butler asks for a change of venue, the trial will be held in a Citrus County courtroom. All other matters, such as court hearings and the taking of depositions, will also take place in Citrus.
"Everything will be kept here, everything will happen in Citrus County," Ridgway said. "It will just happen with lawyers and judges from somewhere else."