The son of Broward County Chief Judge Peter Weinstein is the latest attorney to question the decision-making process of Circuit Court Judge Matthew Destry. In a Broward/Palm Beach New Times article, attorney Michael Weinstein, Broward Public Defender Howard Finkelstein and others attacked Destry’s harsh sentences. Last month, Destry sentenced a 23 year-old felon to sixty years in prison for violating probation.
Four years ago, Herbert Smith was found guilty of seven burglaries and thefts. He served two years in prison. While serving four years of probation, police stopped Smith for driving with a suspended license. According to the Sun-Sentinel, “Smith violated his probation in October by driving with a suspended license in a car with another convicted felon and an ammunition clip filled with .40-caliber bullets, the same judge who gave him a second chance in 2012 decided to send a stronger message.” The judge was Matthew Destry.
The Broward State Attorney wanted Smith to serve 13 years in prison. Destry sentenced Smith to 60 years in prison. “I think 13 is a bit much, but the law is the law,” said Smith’s attorney, Brian Greenwald. “The prosecutor was not being vindictive.”
The harsh sentence lead to a international outcry of injustice. Ratoyna Dumas, a friend of Smith, launched a petition demanding Destry’s removal from the bench. The petition reads, “[Destry] has been known for over sentencing people of color I’ve read several articles and several people have spoken about this judge as far as to how they were unfairly treated. We will not sit around and allow these types of injustices to go on we want justice.” As of December 22, the petition has been signed by 21,078 people.
Following the public outcry, Destry changed his mind. He suspended Smith’s sentence.“To go from 60 years in prison to being released that day — the takeaway is that justice is random in Broward County,” Howard Finkelstein of the Broward Public Defender’s Office tells New Times. “Destry did the right thing but for the wrong reasons.”
The Smith saga is just the latest case of Destry acting out then changing his mind to bow to public pressure.
When he was 19 years old, Demetrius Vidale’s mother turned him into police for throwing rocks at a bus. Vidale received probation. Four years later, Vidale’s name came up in a grand theft investigation. According to the New Times, charges against Vidale were dropped for lack of evidence. Still, Destry used the case to teach Vidale a lesson. He sentenced the 23 year-old to 20 years in prison for violating probation.
“I am not afraid to say when my son is wrong. I was the one who turned him in and started this,”Vidale’s mother, Paula, tells New Times. “This mess is because of Destry. Your life can be ruined depending on what day you catch him on.”
Vidale’s attorney, Michael D. Weinstein, is the son of Broward Chief Judge Peter Weinstein. He did not say Destry uses race when making his decisions. Weinstein said, ““But I think he forgets each person’s individuality and can pigeonhole an individual as a drug dealer.”
The Broward Public Defender’s Office was not as diplomatic as Weinstein. Public Defender Rafael Nones told the New Times, “We try to insulate our clients from Destry and the wrath of a tyrannical judge.” Nones’ boss was just as tough. Finkelstein said, “His power is unmitigated, and part of the problem is that he doesn’t see the humanity of poor people.”
Destry’s flip flopping is not limited to drug dealers. Last December, Destry oversaw the chaotic end of former School Board Member Stephanie Kraft’s public corruption trial. After a jury found Kraft guilty of official misconduct, Destry ordered her jailed pending sentencing. Kraft’s attorney asked Destry to allow her to remain free on bail since her elderly mother was in hospice. Destry denied the request.
“My mother!” Kraft said through tears.
A week later, following another public outcry, Destry released Kraft with a slap on the wrist. He sentenced her to probation, community service and withheld adjudication. Destry even allowed Kraft to leave the courtroom through the front doors in her prison uniform. Many courthouse insiders wondered why Destry would keep her in jail if he was going to let her off the hook so easily.
Now, with Destry running for re-election next year, many of these same insiders expect Destry to get a serious challenger.