By JOHNNY L. MCCRAY JR., ESQUIRE
As I was leaving church service recently, I picked up the Westside Gazette and saw a large article–The Big Reveal of Judge Destry– featuring Broward Circuit Judge Matthew Destry by highlighting his life and judicial career. To say the least, I was utterly flabbergasted to see Judge Destry, who is seeking re-election, portrayed as one who has a rich history and tremendous interest in the African American community.
In nearly 35 years of practicing law in Broward County, I have never spoken out or written about why a sitting judge does not deserve to be re-elected. In this instance, I am compelled to share my thoughts and experiences with the community.
A few months back, I received a call from one of his campaign representatives and was asked if I would support his bid for re-election. I responded’ I cannot in good conscience do so.’
Matthew Destry is neither a friend to minorities nor to the poor. He has demonstrated over and over again that justice in his courtroom is at best sporadic and at worst provided only to those whose favor he covets. During his almost nine year tenure, Destry has been the target of criticism in the media, by practicing attorneys, and by Broward Public Defender Howard Finkelstein, whose office represents mainly the poor and minorities. He is the most terrifying kind of judge—unpredictable, harsh, and wildly and inconsistently wielding his discretion. Some examples:
1) Last year Destry sentenced a 23- year-old with a prison record to 60 years in prison for driving with a suspended license and having some ammo in his car even though prosecutors had asked for 13 years. In a petition, thousands called for his removal from the bench over his harsh sentence. Judge Destry later reversed himself. I know Destry and his machine are spinning this one so fast the details are lost in the blur. Destry now claims he imposed this ridiculous sentence to get this young man’s attention, and he really had no intention of actually going through with it. Nonsense.
He now admits to a private meeting (kept secret from everyone else involved in the case) with “community leaders” such as Vicente Thrower and Pastor Alan Jackson and claims that his abrupt turnaround in reducing the sentence to probation had nothing whatsoever to do with the community demand for his ouster. If that was the case, why a secret meeting where neither the lawyers for the State or the defendant were invited? Not only does such a meeting fly in the face of legal ethics, it calls into question just what was discussed at that meeting that caused Judge Destry to reduce the sentence from almost a lifetime in prison to a mere slap on the wrist. Just where do you think that young man would be right now if there had been no public outcry over the sentence? Even more disturbing–how many more are there like him who did not have his or her sentence publicly denounced sparking the outrage of a community demanding justice?
2) That brings me to my own personal experience with him. I represented a man charged with carrying a concealed firearm and possession of a firearm by convicted felon. The case landed in front of Destry. The Lauderhill police officer, who was racial profiling, claimed he stopped my client because he wasn’t wearing a seat belt, and also claimed he had cited my client for it. He hadn’t. After a hearing, Judge Destry told me that I made a compelling and strong argument, but that there was no way he wasn’t going to take the word of a cop who was a three or four-year veteran with prior military experience (Destry loves to talk about his own military experience out on the campaign trail and in his campaign literature).
He ruled against my client, despite the overwhelming evidence supporting our position. Oh, and that “veteran police officer”? It has been widely reported that the officer committed suicide a day before law enforcement authorities were to arrest him on a warrant prepared by Broward prosecutors on charges of official misconduct and falsifying official records stemming from racial profiling.
3) If you are a minority or represented by anyone other than a big money lawyer, you are more likely to be sentenced to prison by Judge Destry. Take, for example, first time offender Maxime Cherilus. Neither of his two jobs was bringing in enough money to provide for his family. So he did something desperate and criminal that got him arrested-he sold crack to an undercover police officer. His case fell in front of Judge Destry, who sentenced him to ten years in prison–six times what the prosecution was recommending. The fact that he was a first time offender made no impression on Judge Destry. There were no secret meetings with community leaders, no public outcry, and the sentence was not reversed by Destry. Coincidence?
4) As reported in the New Times, four years ago, when Demetrius Vidale was 19, he hurled a rock at a bus in Broward County. His mother, Paula, turned him in and he was placed on probation as a youthful offender. Then, last year, Vidale was linked to a grand theft; Destry sentenced the 22-year-old to 20 years in prison. “I am not afraid to say when my son is wrong. I was the one who turned him in and started this,” Vidale’s mother, Paula, tells New Times. “This mess is because of Destry. Your life can be ruined depending on what day you catch him on.”(Destry’s sentence in Vidale’s case was reversed and remanded last summer since he relied only on hearsay in his probation revocation and sentencing.)
5) Destry is among the most reversed judges in the Broward courthouse. Why is this important? Because it shows either a deep disrespect for the law or a studied ignorance of it, either of which ultimately results in injustice. A judge who doesn’t get it right the first time ensures that justice is delayed. Justice delayed is justice denied. Time is never on the side of justice–cases don’t get better with age, and defendants who are rotting in jail cells don’t reap any benefits.
Yet, despite this, he is known to boast on the campaign trail that he “stands by every ruling he’s ever made.” Including the 13 times he’s been reversed by the appellate court? Including sentencing Herbert Smith to 60 years? He talks about how transparent he is in his courtroom, yet has secret meetings in his chambers that result in reversals in his courtroom. If a judge will say anything he can to get reelected even in the face of documented proof to the contrary, why would we buy what he’s selling?
Judge Destry’s version of justice evinces his propensity to consistently betray fairness and justice. It is quite incredulous how he has suddenly developed such great interest in our community as he has obviously bamboozled a few into supporting and endorsing his bid to return to the bench. He certainly will not get my vote and does not deserve your vote.
Johnny L. McCray, Jr., Esquire is an attorney practicing in Broward County. His law firm is Law Office of Johnny L. McCray, Jr., P.A. located at 400 East Atlantic Boulevard Pompano Beach, Florida 33060. He may be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org