A recent event here in Palm Beach County, Florida, echoes – in reverse – the injustice meted out to the main character in my book Murder in Palm Beach by a judicial system that sometimes functions more as a good ol’ boy network than an arbiter of justice.
I refer to a judge’s recommendation that the state abandon its effort to remove the registration of a professional guardian ad litem. This is someone appointed to resolve financial disputes between elderly, incapacitated persons and their adult children. For two years, the Palm Beach Post reported on guardian Elizabeth Savitt’s conflict of interest stemming from the position of her husband, Martin Colin, as a judge, and the questionable fees she received.
Though the newspaper’s reporting did result in changes in the county’s guardianship system, Savitt’s bold attempts to remain a guardian got a boost last month from Administrative Judge Mary Li Creasy, who ruled that the state guardianship office failed to prove its case against Savitt.
The Post’s recent story said, as background: “Some of the attorneys who represented Savitt and funneled her guardianships appeared in front of Colin, relying on him to approve large fee requests in probate cases.” A significant number of families had complained about how Savitt performed her job. In one case, she took $20,000 in “retainers” from the savings of her ward (the elderly person) before getting approval from a judge to do so.
Attorneys for another Savitt ward complained that $400,000 was missing from their client’s account. But a circuit judge found that the attorneys didn’t have standing. The Post reported: “When families fought Savitt, they found themselves embroiled in (prolonged) legal affairs – all of which resulted in large legal fees that went to Savitt and her lawyers.” Such fees are paid by the ward, “whose money was almost always under Savitt’s control.”
The report said further: “A majority of Savitt’s cases were in front of (Judge David) French, a friend of the couple (she and Judge Colin), who routinely dismissed complaints from family members of wards about Savitt.” The state attorney’s office initiated an investigation into Colin, but no charges were filed. He and French are now retired.
It is a tale about how judges act as an unofficial, but de facto, brotherhood supporting each other.
Judges and Prosecutors
Criminal injustice is rampant in our country, as prosecutors also play politics at times. I recently happened upon a Jan. 17 guest column in the New York Times by law professor Lara Bazelon, author of a book on criminal justice, who wrote that Democratic presidential candidate Kamala Harris subverted justice for a number of men who appear to have been falsely accused of serious crimes. As San Francisco district attorney and California attorney general, “Ms. Harris fought tooth and nail to uphold wrongful convictions that had been secured through official misconduct that included evidence tampering, false testimony and the suppression of crucial information by prosecutors,” Bazelon wrote. The most egregious case was that of a man accused by his stepdaughter, a congenital liar, of molestation. Harris, who touts herself as a “progressive prosecutor” promoting fairer criminal justice, refused to allow exculpatory evidence to be heard, and the man in 2015 went to prison, where he remains. Bazelon suggests that Harris, in her decisions, too often bowed to “conservative law-and-order types” such as local district attorney associations to garner their political support.
A scenario similar to the local guardian ad litem corruption played out in my book Murder in Palm Beach: The Homicide That Never Died. It’s a roman à clef, or novel based on real events and/or persons.
The character, Mitt Hecher, was convicted in the 1976, fatal shooting of a prominent Palm Beach citizen through a window of the family’s home. Investigators spent more than a year trying to find the culprit before a prosecutor with the state attorney’s office was able to pin it on Hecher, who was in jail for minor crimes, on the basis of testimony by jail mates that he had confessed to the murder. But there was no evidence to back up their testimony.
During the 15 years Hecher spent in prison, attorneys working pro bono made 25 appeals for a new trial, arguing that his attorney failed him miserably, no evidence identified him as the killer, and three of the jail mates who accused Hecher confessed on national television that they had made up their stories. Judges in the circuit, state appeals, and South Florida federal courts all turned down the appeals, even when a judge was shown that another judge had made an error. Yet another ruled that the evidence pointed to Hecher as the perpetrator, when in fact there was no evidence.
The judges protected each other’s decisions.
Born Births Books
Some time ago (I don’t remember exactly when), I attended a book signing by crime novelist James Born at the History Museum in the 1916 Palm Beach County Courthouse. Born is a former U.S. Drug agent and Florida Department of Law Enforcement agent who lives in Palm Beach County. During his cop days, he was a consultant for the late crime novelist Elmore Leonard, who tutored Born in writing his own books, which now number a dozen. Several were in collaboration with James Patterson and Lou Dobbs, the ultra-right-wing Fox News commentator. (Dobbs used to rail incessantly against illegal migrants on the CNN evening show he hosted while his daughters used illegal migrants as stable hands in Wellington for the girls’ equestrian activities.)
While working for Palm Beach Illustrated magazine, I wrote an article about Born to go with a large photo of him posing in old-time cop gear. After his talk at the signing, I approached Born and reminded him of who I was. He was friendly – before things turned sour. I held up a copy of Murder in Palm Beach, and asked if he would give a testimonial. I told him the novel revealed, in the thin guise of fiction, who the real killer of Richard Kreusler of Palm Beach was and who was behind the murder, and that convicted karate expert Mark Herman was not the assassin.
Born waved his hands in the air, screwed up his face in disdain, and said that was hogwash – that Herman was the culprit. He refused to read the book, and wouldn’t accept it. I left it with him, anyway.
Born’s father was a Palm Beach County judge.