A judge’s refusal to jail Joseph P. Smith on a probation violation before he was accused of killing 11-year-old Carlie Brucia was in line with standard court procedure, says the St. Petersburg, Fla., Times. Sarasota Circuit Judge Harry Rapkin refused to jail Smith in December for failing to pay $170 in court costs, a condition of his probation on a drug charge. “We don’t have debtor prisons,” said Pinellas-Pasco Circuit Judge Michael Andrews. “This judge did what I think most judges would have done. … The jails are saturated.”
Gov. Jeb Bush said yesterday that lawmakers may need to review whether probation laws should be toughened. “We’re going to review the laws that exist that give judges lots of discretion,” he said. “I am working with the attorney general. We expect to have some recommended changes very soon.”
Adam Tebrugge, Smith’s public defender, is asking court permission to interview grand jurors, a rare request. “Because of the unprecedented level of publicity in this case, counsel for the defendant has good cause to believe that one or more grand jurors may have a state of mind that would prevent them from acting impartially and without prejudice,” Tebrugge said yesterday.
Florida Department of Corrections officials have said Rapkin should have held a hearing to determine whether Smith, who has a record of 13 mostly drug-related arrests, had the ability to pay his costs.
Lawyers interviewed about the case defended the judge, saying few judges would jail someone and hold them pending a hearing at some later date. “It’s easy to stigmatize a judge for doing something like that,” said Dwight Dudley, a Pinellas criminal defense attorney. “But in truth, the system is not set up to handle throwing everybody in jail for a minor technical violation.”
In 1996, a man faced 19 months in prison for setting his ex-girlfriend’s car on fire. After the woman told Rapkin she didn’t want the man to go to prison, Rapkin put him on probation. “You know what the judge’s worst nightmare is?” Rapkin said, reported the Sarasota Herald-Tribune. “If I were to take a chance on you and put you on some type of control release, and I pick up the paper and I find that you’ve gone and done something stupid, you know who gets the hot seat? Not you, me.” The man was later accused of firing a shot at the ex-girlfriend with a shotgun.
The Smith case “will be used as an excuse to change the law and give judges even less discretion,” said Tampa attorney G. Bruce Ketcham. “And the judge didn’t do anything wrong.”