TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (AP) – Former Florida Senate President W.D. Childers on Monday received another chance to clear his name from the U.S. Supreme Court.
The justices reversed a 2011 decision by the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, which had affirmed Childers' bribery conviction, and returned the case to the Atlanta-based court for further consideration.
Childers' conviction stemmed from his position as an Escambia County commissioner, after the Pensacola Republican was term-limited from the Senate in 2000.
Childers, who served as Senate president in 1980-82, has completed a 31/2 year prison term. Besides clearing his name, a reversal of his conviction could restore a $2,500 monthly pension.
His lawyer, Nathan Dershowitz, said the high court decision gives the 80-year-old Childers another opportunity to challenge his conviction but it does not guarantee it will be reversed.
“We're still fighting, he's still fighting,'' Dershowitz said.
Childers' daughter, Karen Childers, said in an email that they were ecstatic about the high court's decision.
“We have always maintained dad's innocence, and we know my dad did not get a fair trial because his right to fully cross examine the only witness against him was curtailed,'' she wrote.
At issue is whether state courts, in upholding Childers' conviction, considered if he had been denied his federal constitutional right to cross-examine that witness, a fellow county commissioner.
A 1996 U.S. law says federal courts cannot grant state defendants relief such as an appeal of unlawful imprisonment if state courts already have ruled on the same issue.
In a brief order, the Supreme Court cited an opinion it had issued Feb. 20 in a California murder case. In that ruling, the justices said state courts can be considered to have ruled on all claims raised by defendants even if their rulings do not comment on those issues.
However, defendants must have an opportunity to disprove that assumption, the high court ruled.
That'll be the next step in Childers' case when it returns to the 11th Circuit.
Childers filed his appeal before the California case, but it was decided first because it was an easier case, Dershowitz said.
“Childers' case is much more difficult and much more complex,'' he said.
A jury convicted Childers of bribing fellow County Commissioner Willie Junior in 2001 to vote for the county's purchase of a defunct soccer complex in Pensacola.
Prosecutors said Childers gave Junior a cooking pot full of cash to vote for buying the land from a businessman who was accused of rewarding the two politicians with kickbacks.
Although they cross-examined Junior on other matters, the trial refused to let Childers' lawyers question him about why he had changed testimony he had given at the trial of the businessman, who was acquitted of bribing the officials.
One of the complications is that Junior is deceased. Authorities said he committed suicide by drinking anti-freeze just before he was scheduled to be sentenced on bribery and other corruption charges unrelated to the land deal.
A three-judge panel of the 11th Circuit initially had reversed Childers' conviction. The full 11-member appeals court, though, reversed the panel and affirmed his conviction.
*Pictured above is W.D. Childers