Miller's Time

Standing before U.S. District Court Judge Norman Roettger last Friday, Miller Dawkins appeared sullen and repentant. Three months ago Dawkins resigned from the Miami City Commission after pleading guilty to federal charges that he had traded votes for bribes during an FBI sting dubbed Operation Greenpalm. Now it was time for his sentencing, and the 71-year-old Dawkins -- who for years was viewed as one of the meanest, toughest, and most arrogant politicians in the city's history -- began to weep. "I'd like to say that what I did was wrong in the greatest sense of wrongness," he sobbed. "To my family, my friends, my church, my community, and to the court, I ask forgiveness." Offering nothing more in his own defense, Dawkins, his eyes still wet with tears, gently bowed his head and waited for his sentence to be imposed.

But before Roettger could speak the lights in the courtroom unexpectedly dimmed. As courtroom bailiffs anxiously scrambled to see what was occurring and the crowded gallery whispered excitedly, a single spotlight flashed on and illuminated the raised platform of the judge's bench. In Roettger's place a new figure appeared. It was Madonna. Dressed in the flowing black robes of a judge, hair wound tight in a bun, she rose from her seat, opened her arms wide, and began to sing:

"Don't cry for me Miller Dawkins
The truth is you were always crooked
All through your wild days
Your mad existence
You broke your promise
Now take your sentence."

And it was at that moment Saturday that I woke up.
In reality, Dawkins did cry at Friday's hearing, in which Roettger sentenced the disgraced politician to 27 months in prison. But there was also much to the day's events that had the feel of theater -- an eclectic cast of characters, a storyline filled with intrigue and deception. There was even a little Shakespeare for the artsy crowd.

And as at any other well-publicized and highly touted production, crowds began lining up early to ensure they could get good seats. "We only know what we've read in the paper," one woman said as she waited with several other Dawkins supporters outside the courtroom. "And we don't trust the paper, so we wanted to come down here and see for ourselves. We believe that everyone is innocent until proven guilty, and we're here to see that justice is served."

Of course, Miller Dawkins no longer held the presumption of innocence, since he had already pled guilty last October. His confession, however, held little sway with his supporters. "We don't know the pressures exerted on him to plead guilty," explained the woman, who like the others refused to disclose her name.

Although the hearing was scheduled to begin at 1:15 p.m., Dawkins made his dramatic entrance ten minutes late, at 1:25. He was surrounded by additional supporters and flanked by his attorney, Jesse McCrary, and Urban League president T. Willard Fair.

The hearing lasted less than an hour, as McCrary produced six character witnesses to speak on Dawkins's behalf. Richard Barry, the rector of St. Agnes Episcopal Church in Overtown, described Dawkins as "a person of integrity" and added that "nothing has happened to change that opinion of him." Annette Eisenberg, a political activist and founder of the Downtown Bay Forum, pleaded with the judge to place Dawkins on probation instead of sending him to prison. "We need Miller," she implored. Robert Simms, former executive director of Dade's Community Relations Board, and Laurie Lichtman, a local business owner, made similar heartfelt appeals.

But it was the appearance of Dawkins's final supporter that electrified the audience: U.S. Rep. Carrie Meek. "Your honor, I'm pleased and humbled to be here to ask you for one thing: mercy for Miller Dawkins," the congresswoman began. "The Miller Dawkins that I know is not the Miller Dawkins that sits here. Yes, he made one mistake. We all make mistakes."

The Miami Democrat described Dawkins as a tireless advocate for the rights of minorities. "None of us had the courage that this man had to speak out," she explained. "He was not well-liked by some people in high places. But I want to tell you, the little people liked this man."

As prosecutors and investigators listened to Meek refer to Dawkins's "one mistake" and to how much "the little people" were on his side, they were amazed. They wondered if the congresswoman had even read or understood the indictment. Dawkins didn't make just one mistake. And these charges did not involve merely "one moment in time," as McCrary tried to describe it.

Dawkins was standing before Judge Roettger because for eighteen months -- eighteen months -- he had plotted and planned a scheme to extort money from a company seeking business with the city. He agreed to exchange his vote for $100,000 in cash, and in two separate meetings, months apart, he accepted the money -- $25,000 before the vote and $75,000 after. But still this wasn't enough for Dawkins. Consumed by greed and an inflated view of his own worth, he demanded an additional $100,000.

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Jim DeFede
Contact: Jim DeFede