Just days before the August primary, the Investigative Panel of the Florida Judicial Qualifications Commission (JQC) determined Broward County Circuit Court Judge Matthew Destry violated numerous judicial rules by meeting with a local political activist. JAABlaw first reported the formal charges against Destry. While he was soundly defeated in the primary, the severity of charges would have likely lead to Destry’s removal from the bench. As REDBROWARD exclusively reported, Barbara Duffy was Destry’s only opponent to vigorously question his actions and demeanor on the bench. Even though voters rewarded Duffy with the most votes, the number of candidates running against Destry guaranteed a November runoff.
Last year, Destry gained international scorn for his sentencing of Herbert Smith to sixty-years in prison.
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.”
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.”
DESTRY CUT SECRET DEAL WITH POLITICAL ACTIVIST
According to the JQC, Destry changed Smith’s sentence after a secret meeting at a Las Olas restaurant. One week after sentencing Smith, Destry met activist Vicente Thrower and Rev. Alan B. Jackson at Mangos. “This meeting, …took place outside the presence of the State Attorney and Defendant, and without the knowledge of either party.” When questioned by JQC investigators in August, Destry was “evasive” about Thrower. Destry admitted Thrower had his personal cell phone number. “Only when pressed did [Destry] disclose that he was a political activist who had worked to generate community support for your first judicial campaign in 2010.”
After meeting with them for an hour, “Mr. Thrower and Rev. Jackson convinced you to reopen the matter, arguing that their community had not been adequately heard on Mr. Smith’s sentencing, and they wanted a chance to speak on his behalf. You have admitted that while meeting with Mr. Thrower and Rev. Jackson you committed to setting a hearing to reconsider Mr. Smith’s sentence, and invited Mr. Thrower and Rev. Jackson to attend and be heard regarding the matter.”
According to the JQC, Destry admitted to the improper meeting at a Sun-Sentinel editorial board meeting. “You also acknowledged this meeting between yourself and Mr. Thrower and Rev. Jackson during an interview with the editorial board of the Sun Sentinel newspaper. Your comments were tape-recorded, and witnessed by other judicial candidates as well as newspaper staff. You further acknowledged to the Commission that, after this meeting, you were aware that Mr. Thrower began urging members of his community to support your current re-election campaign.”
Since prosecutors and defense lawyers were not told about the meeting, investigators determined Destry’s meeting with Thrower constituted an ex-parte meeting, a huge no-no for judges. Destry conceded it was ex parte, but tried to argue it fell under an “emergency” or “scheduling” exception.
Following the meeting, the JQC stated Destry scheduled a new hearing on his own accord to discuss his sentencing. Neither prosecutors nor defense lawyers had made a motion regarding sentencing. JQC investigators stated Destry failed to give lawyers adequate notice, but he, “personally phoned Mr. Thrower to inform him of the date and time of the hearing, and again invited him to be present.”
Finally, the JQC stated, “Taken together, your actions create the appearance of a quid pro quo exchange of political support for favorable judicial action, and further constitutes inappropriate conduct in violation of Canons 1, 2(A), 3B(2), 3B(7), 3B(8), 3B(9), 5A(2), 5A(3), 5A(4), of the Code of Judicial Conduct.”