A deeper look at a Judge struggling with his first high-profile case
Readers of Legal Insurrection will have noted our ongoing coverage of the Florida “loud music” trial, in which the defendant Michael Dunn is charged with 1st degree murder in the shooting death of 17-year-old Jordan Davis.
The general narrative of events at the scene of the killing is that both men (Davis accompanied by three friends, Dunn by his fiancé) were fueling their cars at a local gas station. Davis’ vehicle was playing music at a sound unpleasant to Dunn—and indeed, forensics photos show a massive set of speakers mounted in the rear of Davis’ SUV—and he asked them to turn the music down. The youths declined, and an escalating and increasingly hostile verbal confrontation began.
Here the prosecution and defense narratives differ. The State essentially argues that Dunn was so enraged by the music that he drew his licensed pistol and shot Davis and his friends, Davis mortally.
The defense argues that Davis and his friends were making explicit deadly threats against him, and he only shot at them when he reasonably perceived what appeared to be a weapon. (No weapon was actually recovered from the vehicle, although this fact is of course not dispositive in a self-defense case, so long as Dunn’s perception of a weapon was reasonable even if mistaken).
Presiding Judge Russell Healey Becomes Center of Focus for Media Coverage of Trial
Much of the news about the trial, however, has had little to do with either the State’s case against Dunn or Dunn’s defense against the charges.
Instead, rather unusually, much of the last several week’s attention has focused primarily on the Judge overseeing the case, Judge Russell Healey. One might wonder, then, who is Russell Healey in terms of judicial background, experience, and temperament?
Judge Russell Healey is a County Judge Accustomed to Misdemeanor and Small Civil Trials
In fact, the Florida Times-Union newspaper asked, and answered, precisely that question in a piece published today: “Judge Russell Healey stands firm despite rough patches heading into Dunn trial.”
The article is, unfortunately, firewalled, so I’ll just touch upon some of the points that most struck me.
First, it is worth understanding the organizational structure of the Florida court system. Small civil cases and criminal misdemeanors are generally handled at the County Court level. The next level up, the Circuit Courts, typically handles the more serious felony criminal cases. Next, the District Court of Appeals handle appellate matters arising in the lower Circuit Courts.
Judge Healey is, in fact, a County Court judge (although he currently is among 23 applicants to become a Circuit Court judge in the 4th Circuit, where he is currently presiding). As such, his experience adjudicating cases has been largely limited to misdemeanor criminal charges and small-time civil matters. Neither type of case, it should be noted, would be of the sort to attract any meaningful media attention.
That said, it is not at all unusual in Florida for a County Court judge to stand-in at the Circuit Court level on a temporary basis if a Circuit judge is sick, or on vacation, or simply while waiting for a permanent Circuit assignment to be made following a retirement. Similar, it is not unusual for Circuit Court judges to take a temporary seat on the District Court of Appeals, for similar reasons. In fact, Florida state law requires identical qualifications for both County Court and Circuit Court judges.
Currently, the 4th Circuit has two existing vacancies, and had moved a third judge to solely handling civil cases. Furthermore, two other Circuit Court judges assigned to the Dunn case had previously recused themselves, further limiting the availability of Circuit judges for the trial.
As a result, and consistent with Florida practice, a County Court judge was called up to fill the slack—Judge Healey.
The Relatively Inexperienced Healey Finds Himself Presiding Over a Very High Profile Murder Trial
While such a posting for a County Court is not unusual, however, such a posting to as high-profile and media-intensive a trial as this one apparently is unusual, especially to a judge with such little actual experience in such a drama-prone setting.
The Florida Times-Union piece puts his relative inexperience in context by noting that the judge who oversaw the Casey Anthony case had been a Chief Circuit Judge before doing so. They also note that Judge Nelson who oversaw the Zimmerman case had been a Circuit Court judge for 13 years before being chosen for that case. (Interestingly, most of her Circuit Court work was in non-criminal cases, and some—including myself—have suggested that this lack of criminal case experience was starkly revealed throughout the Zimmerman trial.)
Healey’s Rulings on Release of Evidence Repeatedly Reversed, Sometimes Contradictory
It appears that Healey’s relative inexperience with felony cases, and particularly high-profile felony cases, is showing.
Healey’s rulings on various motions involving the release of discovery evidence to the media have already been smacked down three times by the 1st District Court of Appeals.
His conduct of an evidentiary hearing on the matter that began without the presence of the media intervenors who requested the hearing also raised eyebrows to the ceiling.
Finally, his decision this past Wednesday to toss the entire matter to the civil courts, after having ruled just the prior Friday that the discovery evidence was to be released to the media, has compelled the 1st District Court to reverse his Wednesday ruling (the third reversal on these discovery issues) and order an emergency hearing.
Given the thin bench presently in the 1st Circuit, and with the trial scheduled to start tomorrow, there seems little likelihood that yet a fourth Circuit judge will be assigned to replace Healey.
But, we suppose, in Florida jurisprudence just about anything is possible.
[Featured image source: News 4 Jacksonville]
Andrew F. Branca is an MA lawyer and the author of the seminal book “The Law of Self Defense, 2nd Edition,” available at the Law of Self Defense blog, Amazon.com (paperback and Kindle), Barnes & Noble (paperback and Nook), and elsewhere.DONATE
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