Broward Public Defenders Accuse Head Prosecutor of "Institutional Failures" of Justice

Broward State Attorney Mike Satz
Broward State Attorney Mike Satz Office of the State Attorney
State Attorney Mike Satz has been the top prosecutor in Broward County since 1976. He's somehow won every single reelection bid, every four years, for the past 43 years. In that time, the criminal-justice world has changed around him: Prosecutors have come under increased scrutiny, forensic technology has improved, and prosecutors' offices have adopted all sorts of new practices and review policies that, generally speaking, are standard across the nation.

But in a scathing open letter issued yesterday by the Broward Public Defender's Office, chief defender Howard Finkelstein — Satz's longtime nemesis — accuses Satz of failing to keep up with the times and refusing to adopt common-sense reforms to ensure that basic justice is served in Florida's second-most populous county.

"We are requesting that you make changes in your office's procedures to correct institutional failures impacting the fair administration of justice in our community," the letter begins. "We are asking you to implement these changes because they are necessary to bring your office in-line with other prosecution offices around Florida and the nation that have recognized that they are not perfect and their decisions should be better scrutinized. Simply put, your legacy includes wrongful convictions and turning a blind eye to suspect evidence and racially motivated police practices. It is time to establish safeguards against these very real problems for the future of our community."

Among multiple points, Finkelstein and the executive chief assistant public defender, Gordon Weekes, say they're livid that Satz hasn't yet created a Conviction Integrity Unit to ensure that false convictions are weeded out and corrected. They're angry that Satz seemingly has no panel to review death-penalty cases and no group of experts tasked with approving requests to "direct-file" children and charge them as adults in court. And, perhaps most staggering, the Public Defender's Office says that after the Broward County Sheriff's crime lab was temporarily shut down after multiple scandals in 2016, Satz essentially did nothing to force BSO to correct the situation.

Reached by phone, Weekes, who is running to replace the retiring Finkelstein in 2020, says that although his office has lodged these complaints separately at Satz's office over the years, he and Finkelstein believed it was time to lay everything out in a single letter to the State Attorney's Office.

"This is the first letter that encapsulates all these issues together," Weekes says. "We were having conversations inside our office, saying look at what other state attorney's offices have done. We were really taken aback by the way some stuff has been handled."

Satz's office this morning sent a long response to various points in the letter — the office says it stands by the way it handled the crime-lab fiasco and stresses that it is in the process of creating a Conviction Review Unit, which should be operational within the next few weeks.

"The latest letter contains nothing but recycled old complaints from the Public Defender’s Office that we have responded to in the past," a spokesperson for the state attorney's office said in a lengthy written statement, which can be read in-full at the bottom of this post. "The State Attorney’s Office and the Public Defender’s Office have differences of opinion regarding public safety. The Broward State Attorney’s Office is concerned about public safety and ensuring justice for everybody."

But across the nation, prosecutors have come under renewed scrutiny in a post-Black Lives Matter world. They hold immense power over their communities — they decide who is charged with which crimes and strongly influence the amount of time a person spends behind bars. Other cities — Philadelphia and St. Louis, for example — have recently elected progressive, "decarceral" prosecutors who have promised to dismantle huge portions of America's demonstrably racist criminal-justice system from the inside. But not in South Florida: Miami-Dade State Attorney Katherine Fernandez Rundle has held office since 1993, and Satz has been in charge in Broward for nearly a half-century.

Weekes and Finkelstein say they're astounded that, in that time, Satz has not created a Conviction Integrity Unit, which is seemingly standard practice in most prosecutors' offices in 2019. Likewise, the letter scolds Satz for making some huge decisions without oversight: For example, Weekes and Finkelstein say Satz's office has no review process to decide whether a child should be charged as an adult or whether someone should be given the death penalty. Satz himself simply makes the final call. The Public Defender's Office says that, whether accidentally or not, this practice has led to major disparities in justice across Broward County, as black and brown teens are far likelier to be tried as adults, for example, in Satz's jurisdiction. Weekes and Finkelstein called Satz's direct-file process "flawed."

The letter states:

The Florida Department of Juvenile Justice has reported that, between 2015-2018, your office direct-filed black children at an alarmingly disproportional rate. From 2015-2016, your office direct-filed 52 children, and of those youth, 32 (62 percent) were black, 13 (25 percent) were white, and 7 (13 percent) were of Hispanic descent. From 2016-2017, your office direct-filed 43 children, and of those youth, 29 (67 percent) were black, 9 (21 percent) were white, and 5 (12 percent) where of Hispanic descent. From 2017-2018, your office direct-filed 35 children, and of those youth, 24 (69 percent) were black, 9 (26 percent) were white, and 2 (6 percent) were of Hispanic descent. It is apparent that your office's unfettered discretion has resulted in black youth being treated more harshly.
The public defenders also bit into Satz for failing to take action after BSO's crime lab was temporarily shuttered in 2016. That year, New Times reported that a crime lab employee, Kelli McDonald, had quietly resigned after she was investigated for allegedly mishandling and/or spiriting away drug evidence that had been collected from crime scenes. The same year, New Times reported that an outside whistleblower had found serious flaws in the way the crime lab was processing DNA evidence — flaws that could have affected criminal convictions. New Times also obtained a copy of a sworn deposition from a former head of the lab who said the facility was in a state of disarray that year.

After those stories broke, BSO temporarily stopped some types of DNA analysis. But in the years since then, the Public Defender's Office says Satz has basically done next to nothing — no cases have been reexamined, policies have barely been changed, and McDonald seemingly hasn't faced much more than a slap on the wrist.

Now, Weekes tells New Times his office sent the letter to ensure that whoever replaces Satz after he retires next year, the new prosecutor is willing to at least sit at the table and talk about making changes that could create a fairer justice system in Broward County.

"Folks like to throw around the words 'criminal justice reform,' and it's a good phrase, but it can mean a lot," Weekes says. "This is a concrete system of practices that could change the system. These are safeguards that can be put in place to ensure that bias is not creeping into decision-making, that disparities are not causing one group of folks to be treated differently. There have been advancements in forensic science over the years — you don't respond to that by burying your head in the sand, continuing to do what you've been doing, and thinking that everything is gonna be fine."

Here is Satz's response in full:

The latest letter contains nothing but recycled old complaints from the Public Defender’s Office that we have responded to in the past. The State Attorney’s Office and the Public Defender’s Office have differences of opinion regarding public safety. The Broward State Attorney’s Office is concerned about public safety and ensuring justice for everybody.

Broward Sheriff’s Office crime lab:
The Broward Sheriff’s Office crime lab remains certified and no instances of improper testing of DNA or drugs have been identified by the Broward Public Defender’s Office, private defense attorneys or our office. The Public Defender’s Office has not produced one case where a court determined that DNA testing was done in a wrongful manner. (We have discussed these matters with the sheriff’s office and refer you to that agency for their perspective.)

Our office sent written notification to every individual who could potentially have been affected by the DNA or drug testing allegations so that each defendant could have their attorney file any relevant objections and litigate any issues. Most of the individuals were represented by the public defender’s office. We felt that notifying each individual was the right thing to do.

No criminal conduct by lab employees has been found.

"Case-filing deference":
The former drug-trafficking unit secretary issue was reported in 2016 and her employment was terminated. As we explained in 2016: “We did attempt to proceed criminally but the allegations were 3 1/2 years old and, after investigating them, we could not prove or disprove them. Without evidence to prove a corpus to a crime, we proceeded administratively to remove the threat,” Tim Donnelly, the head of the public corruption unit wrote in a statement.

The justice system requires more evidence than a suspect simply stating they committed a crime. As any defense lawyer will tell you, you have to establish a corpus delicti.

Wrongful convictions:
Sending an innocent person to prison, no matter what the offense, is devastating to the individual, their loved ones, and the community. It is a prosecutor’s worst nightmare. Our prosecutors, with Fort Lauderdale police and the Broward Sheriff’s Office, have initiated the exoneration process in practically all of the handful of cases that have been identified. With the evolution of both DNA testing and society’s understanding of false confessions, the Broward State Attorney’s Office has taken significant steps to correct errors in cases that were litigated before DNA testing was available.

For close to 20 years, our office has asked law enforcement agencies to ensure that all statements by persons in custody be videotaped from start to finish.  In 2001, our office also took the initiative in offering DNA testing for persons sentenced to death, and agreed to DNA testing in many other cases, before a rule of criminal procedure allowing for post-conviction DNA testing was adopted. 

Conviction integrity unit:
We announced in June that the Broward State Attorney’s Office was formally creating a Conviction Review Unit to continue our long-term practice of reviewing cases: The newly named unit, which formalizes the kinds of reviews we have been doing for more than two decades, is expected to be operational in the next week or two.

Direct filing:
Until this year, 2019, state law mandated that certain crimes allegedly committed by juveniles be direct filed in adult court. Even when the decision is made to direct file a case in adult court, the judge can still impose juvenile sanctions.

The decision to file charges against a juvenile in adult court is not based on race; it is based on the juvenile’s prior record and the seriousness of the alleged offense. Until this year, state law made it mandatory for some juvenile cases to be transferred to adult court – under Florida statutes 985.557(2)(b) and 985.557(2)(d). All decisions to direct file are reviewed to ensure the process is consistent, well founded and without regard to race.

The number of direct filed cases has decreased significantly in the last several years. In 2018, the Broward State Attorney’s Office filed adult charges against 49 juveniles – and in at least 42 of those cases, it was due to mandatory requirements of state law. In at least two cases where discretionary decisions were made, the allegations involved sex crimes against children. All 49 cases involved serious crimes.

Of the 3,664 juvenile arrests referred to our office by police in 2018, we filed adult charges against 49 juveniles. At least 42 of those transferred cases were mandatory under state law. That means that approximately 1.3 percent of juvenile cases were direct filed in 2018. Again, even when a case is direct filed in adult court, the judge can still choose to impose juvenile sanctions. (Our office declined to file in 365 cases and 1,121 cases were sent to juvenile diversion programs in 2018.)

Death penalty decisions:
Any suggestion that the decision to seek the death penalty is based on a prosecutor’s “gut feeling” or “gut instinct” is absurd. According to state law, the state attorney’s office has to make an initial decision on whether to seek the death penalty within 45 days of arraignment. If this notice of intent is not provided by that deadline, the state is forever precluded from seeking the death penalty in that case. After making that initial decision, we continually review the evidence and any mitigation (reasons why the death penalty may not be appropriate). State Attorney Mike Satz, Chief Assistant State Attorney Jeff Marcus, Shari Tate (head of the homicide unit) and the prosecutor handling the case continue to discuss whether to seek the death penalty. Many defendants are not evaluated by the defense for mental health issues until many months after indictment and arraignment. Evaluating whether to pursue the death penalty is a continuing process, even after we file a notice of intent.
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Jerry Iannelli is a former staff writer for Miami New Times from 2015 to March 2020. He graduated with honors from Temple University. He then earned a master's degree in journalism from Columbia University.