Georgia on His Mind

Defendants he can handle, but Circuit Judge Henry Ferro never imagined he'd have to answer to irate grandmother/activist Georgia Ayers

In five months as a criminal court judge in Dade County, Henry Ferro has come to expect days filled with mayhem. His overcrowded docket reads like a True Crime index: assaults, drug deals, sex battery, and all varieties of theft.

But nothing could prepare the jurist for the sight that greeted him upon his arrival at work May 11. The sign read, "Deport Judge Henry Ferro." More unnerving was the bearer of this ill tiding: venerated black leader Georgia Jones Ayers. Under her tutelage, two more picketers worked the front of the Metro Justice building, wearing sandwich-board signs that branded Ferro variously as a "racist," a "bastard," and, if the swastika was any indication, a Nazi.

The protest was the denouement of a feud between Ayers and Ferro, one that, depending on your slant, is either a righteous crusade against a cocky young circuit judge or a misguided smear campaign waged by an overprotective grandmother.

The mini-drama stems from an incident that took place on April 19, 1991. Just after noon, two undercover Metro-Dade police officers pulled up to the Cloverleaf Apartments in North Miami Beach. According to an affidavit given by detective Roberto Trujillo, Victor Cobham approached the car and, in exchange for a twenty-dollar bill, handed Trujillo a bag containing crack. The next day both officers independently identified Cobham, who is Ayers's grandson, after viewing police photos of youths known to hang out at the complex.

Police did not arrest Cobham, however, fearing it would jeopardize a long-term undercover sting operation. Instead they waited more than three months before issuing an arrest warrant on August 6. A week later Cobham was taken into custody and charged with possession and sale of cocaine, and his case began its trudge through the state system.

Cobham insists police nabbed the wrong man, and he points to discrepancies between himself and the description police supplied of the drug peddler. In a March deposition, for instance, detective Barbara Rivera, Trujillo's partner, described the perpetrator as five-foot-eight, with a medium build. The twenty-year-old Cobham stands a shade over six feet tall and is slim. More recently, the defendant passed a court-ordered polygraph exam.

Prosecutors who reviewed the case at Georgia Ayers's request agree it's not rock-solid, but they point out that the word of two veteran cops is powerful evidence. They also note Cobham's two previous arrests, one of which was for possession of marijuana.

Ayers calls the matter a mockery of justice, and with Cobham's trial date set for next month, the matronly activist has taken to accompanying her grandson to proceedings. "I wanted to be with him because he's not familiar with the court," explains Ayers, executive director of the Alternative Program, a nonprofit agency designed to steer defendants toward jobs and away from crime.

Her hassles began at a February 12 hearing. Ferro, a fresh transfer from the civil division, was discussing a plea offer for Cobham when Ayers began addressing the court. "I'll tell the state and you and anyone, this boy has never been in trouble," said Ayers, vehemently opposed to any plea agreement. "If he's guilty I would not question it."

"I'm not arguing with you, ma'am," Ferro answered.
"Judge, please," Ayers pressed.
"You're testing my patience," the judge admonished her. "The State has filed charges and Mr. Cobham is represented by the Public Defender's Office. And he's got a right to trial and I'm not going to keep you from going to trial. But I'm not going to sit here and have a disturbance in this courtroom."

"I represent the county and the state and certainly, because I happen to be related, I should not have to back down," Ayers said.

"I'm not asking you to back down," Ferro explained. "But we've got a whole courtroom full of people."

Ayers took offense at the snub and arranged a meeting with Ferro, intending, she says, to clear the air. But Ferro contends she wanted to bend his ear about the case and he had to instruct her that he could not discuss cases outside the courtroom.

The pair locked horns again in court two weeks ago. Ferro hoped to schedule a third hearing, at which Cobham would announce whether he accepted the prosecutor's offer of no jail time in exchange for a guilty plea. Dead set against any plea, Ayers rose again.

"Your honor, please," she said. "Why?"
"Ma'am, I am not going to get into this," the judge shot back. "Stop."
Ayers did just that: she stormed out of the courtroom, her grandson in tow.

"She wanted to monopolize the only voice heard in this courtroom, and that's not the way it's going to be played in this courtroom," Ferro commented in Ayers's wake. "She's putting things in that young man's mind that's keeping anything from happening in this case, and I am not going to have Georgia Ayers or anybody else in the community telling this court what to do.

"I doubt seriously that she would accept anything other than [dropping the charges] and a sincere and deep apology from the State for having her grandson go out and purchase cocaine," added the judge, sufficiently miffed that he threatened to issue an arrest warrant for Cobham and later asked public defender Roy Gonzalez if he wanted to drop the case "because Ms. Ayers wants to represent her grandson."

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