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."
No less choleric, Ayers characterizes the judge as a raving tyrant who banged on his desk and shouted at her. "I haven't picketed since 1965," she says. "But looking at [Ferro], seeing his hating eyes, brought up all that 1965 militancy in me. All of the riots I have been through didn't make me as angry as this. When I left that courthouse, I went straight to the store and bought placards."
The next morning, Thursday, May 7, she and her two helpers hit the Metro Justice building. Putting aside her duties at the Alternative Program, Ayers showed up Friday, and the following Monday morning. She relented Monday afternoon, after meeting with administrative Judge Joseph Farina, and this past Wednesday Ferro removed himself from Cobham's case, saying that he wanted to avoid any perception that the defendant would be treated unfairly.
But the ill will fumes on.
"Ferro's not fit to be a judge. He's not fit to preside over human beings," Ayers huffs. "It's not just me he needs to apologize to, it's the whole system of justice. When people were walking by me [picketing], they said, `Thatta way to go, Georgia! He is an arrogant bastard.'" She claims to have confirmed her low opinion of Ferro by surveying at least 100 court regulars.
One defense attorney, who requested anonymity, calls Ferro "a loose cannon in the judiciary. He doesn't know the law and he's pompous. He threatens attorneys with contempt, treats people rudely. He basically plays God in his courtroom," says the lawyer, who recently filed a complaint against Ferro with the Judicial Qualifications Committee. "In a community like we have, he's the wrong guy for the bench. He's just a match waiting to ignite the fuse."
Others, however, defend the 34-year-old jurist. "He's a very good judge," says one public defender in his court, who likewise requested anonymity. "He was a little rough when he first came over to criminal. But he's attuned himself to the system. He is not rude or belligerent." The lawyer cites a recent case in which Ferro allowed the defendant, a pregnant, epileptic drug user, to move into an apartment he owns, rent-free, until she can get back on her feet.
The judge, a New York transplant reared by a Cuban mother and a Spanish father, refuses to comment about the Cobham case itself. But Ferro, who received an obscenity-laced phone call at 2:30 a.m. last Friday, did take issue with what he called Ayers's "vendetta" against him. "I am not a racist Nazi bastard and the idea that Ms. Ayers has a problem with me does not justify her saying those things about me. For her to call me such names without taking five minutes to find out who I am or what I represent is the height of irresponsibility," says the judge, citing his numerous off-the-bench activities, which include chairing the Dade County Task Force on Homelessness.
Ferro adds that he is deeply troubled by Ayers's use of a swastika and her racially divisive tactics: "I lived through the riots and I've seen what they do to our community and it hurts me. I don't want to be a part of anything that divides us."
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Ayers defends the wording of her signs, right down to the swastika. "Inappropriate? Not when I see a person acting like Hitler used to act. Hitler was in control. I should have put Castro [on the sign] because Castro is in complete control of Cuba," she scoffs. "When Ferro's in that courtroom, he has an iron rule on people." She also rejects the suggestion that her actions, which have included lobbying several prosecutors and judges about her grandson's case, represent influence peddling: "I'm not fighting just because he's my grandson. Check my record in this courthouse over the past 25 years. I've fought for thousands of people of all different races."
Cobham's case, which has since been reassigned to Judge Catherine Pooler, appears destined to go to trial, on June 29.
No matter what the outcome, Ayers vows to support Ferro's opponent when he comes up for re-election in 1994. "I first met him, you know, during the last election at a judicial forum at my house," Ayers recalls. "He was so rude in downgrading his opponent that I had to leave my own house. I should have known then what kind of judge he'd make."
Ironically, three years ago her own agency presented Ferro with a plaque for outstanding service in juvenile court. "That was the Program," snaps an unrepentant Ayers. "Not me.