John Popejoy stood in a Plantation Key courtroom on November 10 and pleaded guilty to two counts of lewd and lascivious assault on a child. Sixteenth Circuit Court Judge J. Jefferson Overby sentenced Popejoy to seven years in state prison, to be followed by five years probation with mental health treatment.
For Popejoy and his family, it was a resolution to a two-and-a-half-year ordeal, the subject of a New Times cover story ("Her Brother's Keeper," October 21). His sister Pam had moved to Miami from Houston two years ago to offer support and legal help. But Popejoy's guilty plea wasn't exactly the resolution they had hoped for. He had turned down several plea bargains offered by prosecutors since his arrest in May 1990, and this past Monday was to have gone to trial for the second time on charges of molesting his former girlfriend's seven-year-old daughter, charges he still denies.
"There were many, many factors" in his decision to plea bargain, says Popejoy, who is awaiting transfer to state prison from his cell in the Monroe County Jail in Key West. "I don't know if I could go through another year and a half battling the courts. Unfortunately, I don't have the money, and it's a strain on my family." Popejoy's father died in August, and his mother was recently hospitalized in Texas; he blames their ill health on worry and grief over his imprisonment. Beyond that, he doesn't want to discuss his reasons for taking the plea.
Pam Popejoy maintains that her brother is innocent and asserts that the initial New Times story about the case was defamatory and damaging to her family. She refused to comment about the plea, as did John Popejoy's attorney, Charles Jamieson.
Popejoy was arrested in Marathon in May 1990. A day earlier, he had spoken by telephone with a Monroe County sheriff's deputy and an HRS investigator and, according to those officials, had admitted that he molested his girlfriend's daughter. Popejoy says he was seeking advice about how to handle the young girl's behavior problems, and he insists he never admitted molesting her. After a one-day trial in December 1990, Popejoy, now 39, was found guilty on one capital count of sexual battery and three lesser felony charges; the capital charge carried a mandatory life sentence.
But Pam Popejoy, a paralegal in Texas who built a free-lance courtroom graphics business before leaving Houston, wasn't willing to give up. Convinced her brother had been railroaded by the Monroe County legal establishment, she got the Dade Public Defender's Office to appeal the verdict. Meanwhile, she took her story to Gov. Lawton Chiles, to reporters, and to HRS director James Towey. She filed Florida Bar complaints against one private defense attorney who handled the case (John Popejoy fired that lawyer a month before trial, in part because she had recommended a plea bargain). Pam Popejoy also filed bar complaints against the two lawyers who represented her brother at his trial.
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In April of last year, the Third District Court of Appeals ordered a new trial, after finding that the prosecution -- the Monroe State Attorney's Office -- should have been disqualified from the case. The Monroe public defender originally assigned to represent Popejoy was hired as a prosecutor several weeks into the case, an arrangement deemed improper by the the appeals panel, which ordered the Dade State Attorney's Office to handle prosecution at Popejoy's second trial. (The court found no merit to other issues raised in the appeal, including claims that the state had failed to prove its case at trial and that some prosecution testimony should not have been admitted.)
Although he was sentenced to seven years, John Popejoy won't spend that much time in prison. He'll be given credit for the two-and-a-half years he's already served in the state prison at Hendry and in the Key West jail, according to prosecutor David Honig. "You always get credit for time served," Honig says. "Exactly how much more time and how he serves the remaining years is up to the Department of Corrections."
Under Florida's complicated corrections system, parole has been abolished in most cases, but inmates are often released early, if they are deemed eligible to receive "gain time" that reduces their sentences considerably, says Department of Corrections spokesman Bob MacMaster. According to MacMaster, at this point it is impossible to determine how much (if any) gain time Popejoy will be given; officials won't calculate the precise time he will spend in prison until after he steps inside the walls. But informed legal sources familiar with the Florida prison system say Popejoy probably will be released very soon.