Thursday, February 02, 2006

Childers Conviction Upheld

In 77 pages of judicial opinions, a majority of the 15 judges of Florida's First District Court of Appeals in Tallahassee have upheld the conviction of Pensacola's former political powerhouse, W.D. Childers. If the decision becomes final, the court will be sending the case back to the trial judge for imposition of an order compelling Childers to pay $1 million in "victim restitution" to Escambia County.

Childers was for many years dean of the state senate where he effectively held the purse strings. After being term-limited, he won a seat as Escambia County commissioner and quickly became a dominating force on the board.

The First District's "en banc" (full court) decision and dissenting views are available in legalese here (pdf format). Veteran Associated Press reporter Bill Kaczor has the details in people-speak here:
Former Florida Senate President W.D. Childers lost an appeal Thursday of his bribery conviction related to a Pensacola land deal while he was serving as an Escambia County commissioner.

He was convicted after a fellow commissioner, who later committed suicide by drinking antifreeze, testified Childers offered him a cooking pot filled with cash to vote for the $4.1 million purchase of a defunct soccer complex in 2001.

The 1st District Court of Appeal also ruled Childers can be required to pay restitution of up to $1 million - the amount Escambia County lost when it resold the soccer complex.

It was a rare decision by all 15 appellate judges. Most cases are decided by three-judge panels.

There's more. As Bill succinctly explains, the court --
split different ways on three key issues, voting 11-4 to affirm Childers' conviction, 10-1 to reverse a trial judge who had denied restitution... and 11-4 that the case qualified for a full-court review because it was exceptionally important.
In other words, the judges were more divided over how many of them should sit in judgment than what that judgment should be.

It's unusual to see an appellate court wash its dirty laundry in public like this. What makes it doubly weird is that if a run-of-the-mine three-judge panel had decided the case, Childers apparently would have won. Moreover, since the prosecution's star witness Willie Junior, is no longer alive Childers likely could have walked away altogether.

Chief Judge Charles J. Kahn somewhat testily disclosed early in his dissenting opinion that he was "the author of the original panel opinion in this case." He and one or both of the other judges would have reversed Childers' conviction on a point of evidence and ordered a retrial. Because the entire 15-member court took the case "en banc," however, Childers' conviction has been upheld.

Although they didn't say so immediately, W.D.'s lawyers almost certainly will seek a further appeal to the State Supreme Court. There, two of the larger issues will be whether the
intermediate appeals court properly decided the case en banc and whether Escambia County qualifies as a "victim" when someone bribes its county commissioners to over-pay for county property purchases.

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