BY BUDDY NEVINS
Defense lawyers called him Broward’s hanging judge behind his back, but on Friday Matthew Destry put his rope away.
Circuit Judge Destry gave former School Board member Stephanie Kraft five years probation.
He also withheld adjudication, meaning she won’t be a convicted felon and has a good chance of keeping her ability to practice law.
Prosecutor Catherine Maus asked for at least 18 months in jail.
So much for the image of Destry as a mean, unthinking judge who always does the prosecution’s bidding.
But the light sentence triggered a response from Public Defender Howard Finkelstein, whose office represents poor defendants.
“I’m happy for Stephanie, but this sentence points out that there are two standards of justice in Broward County. Rich, white and powerful get probation, while my clients get sent to jail,” Finkelstein said.
Among those attending the hearings to support Kraft was state Sen. Jeremy Ring, the Chair of the Broward Legislative Delegation; political fund raiser Aleida “Ali” Waldman and community activist Mary Fertig, two women who helped Kraft get elected; Tom Powers, a former Coral Springs commissioner and several school system personnel.
Destry noted that only once before had he seen such an outpouring of support for a defendant.
In the Kraft case, prosecutor Maus and her boss State Attorney Mike Satz are clearly the losers. Also proven wrong are elements of the hyperventilating media who had already convicted Kraft.
Prosecutors charged her with corruption. They got a jury to agree reluctantly – jurors were in tears delivering the verdict, according to the Sun-Sentinel – to a relatively minor official misconduct count.
The winner in this is justice.
No matter what you read or heard on television, Kraft was no School Board Jesse James. She was no Beverly Gallagher taking cash in a brown envelope.
Based on the testimony of two dead men that couldn’t be cross examined and two convicted slimy extortionist developers Bruce and Shawn Chait, the charges were always shaky.
Portions of the circumstantial case against Kraft and her husband Mitch Kraft looked bad for the couple. Mitch Kraft took a legal job and money from the dirty developers. Mitch Kraft never should have taken that job. His wife should have told him not to take that job.
In politics, perception is always worse than the truth. The truth was Maus and Satz couldn’t prove that taking that job equaled Stephanie Kraft was corrupt.
So let’s recap:
* Judge Destry. Not the hanging judge every defense attorney moans about…at least in this case. One leading defense attorney was telling the courthouse crowd this week that Kraft would get five years. He was right. She got five years…probation!
I believe that the judge dealt out a very fair sentence given the circumstantial nature of the evidence and testimony from the skeevy Chaits. Probation is a customary sentence for first-time offenders convicted of a third-degree felony.
Plus he delivered a much-needed scolding to Stephanie Kraft when he sentenced her: “You were a member of Team Chait…When they set out to game the system, they needed inside help. They found you.” Looking at the former School Board member, Destry said flatly, “You sold us out.”
* Maus and Satz. This four-year investigation costing untold dollars basically came up with almost nothing against Stephanie Kraft. I believe her third degree felony conviction has a good chance of being overturned.
Mitch Kraft awaits trial and could provide these prosecutors with a partial victory. But snaring the husband is not like convicting the School Board member.
* The Media. While most of the media was responsible including the always-fair Rafael Olmeda of the Sun-Sentinel, some journalists sadly convicted Stephanie Kraft four years ago.
Fueled by selective leaks from Satz’s office in this and other cases, one highly caffeinated reporter in particular branded Kraft and numerous other Broward politicians corrupt. The conviction rate of prosecutors in these highly hyped cases – nearly nil.
So one lesson to be learned from Kraft’s case is don’t necessarily believe everything you read or hear on television.