Thursday, January 26, 2006

Was It A "Set-Up" Or Just A Damn Beer?

On Monday came a post about the kids on going off on the media after Sun-Sentinel reporter Brian Haas e-mailed them to request information on the teens accused of the homeless murder [see "What Goes Around" below].

One of the posts came from the nephew of Rick Robb, an editor at the Palm Beach Post, who used to be metro editor at the Sun-Sentinel. The nephew said Sentinel columnist Mike Mayo once "set [him] up" for a column. Below is Mayo’s first-hand account of what happened (which he permitted to run in the Pulp). It involves one of the most controversial trials in recent South Florida history.

“[Robb’s nephew] is Rich DeBerardinis and he served as a juror on the David Farrall wrong-way driving DUI/manslaughter trial. Because of his connection to Rick, who was the Sun-Sentinel's metro editor at the time, we had agreed to sit down and talk once the verdict was in. Naturally, it was big news, a high-profile case and 1A story, more so when the jury acquitted former FBI agent Farrall of the most serious manslaughter charges in the crash that resulted in the deaths of brothers Maurice Williams and Craig Chambers.

After the verdict, we went to a place on Las Olas (the Italian joint Across from the Floridian, I think it's changed names a few times since then) and I interviewed him for about an hour. I went back to the newsroom and banged out the deadline column, a juror's-view perspective/explanation of how they arrived at their decision. Rick Robb recused himself from editing the story (he was my usual line editor), because of the family connection.

I decided to lead with what I thought was an ironic touch: after a nerve-rattling DUI case, when we sat down and I asked what he wanted, Rich said he wanted a drink. He ordered a beer and we talked, and he showed himself to be an intelligent and conscientious juror. Needless to say, Rich took a lot of grief for the verdict (he eventually left one job after his boss had to order some black co-workers to stop hassling him about the decision in the racially-charged case). He also ridiculously took some grief for drinking that beer, with the Sun-Sentinel printing a letter to that effect from some prudish scold.

If I was in his shoes, I would have done the same thing -- except I probably would have had a double Kettle One on the rocks, not a beer. Because I was on deadline and we don't live in the good old days of Jimmy Breslin and Mike Royko knocking back a few before heading into the newsroom, I stuck with club soda. Nevertheless, Rich always resented me for using that opening. I guess he saw it as a cheap shot. I thought it was ironic and human.

Unfortunate that he thinks I "set him up." That wasn't my intention, I simply took him to a restaurant, as I do with many of my sources/interview subjects, and I paid the bill. I didn't even realize he'd be so upset with me including the beer anecdote.”

And there you have it. Below is the column Mayo wrote (I couldn’t link to it because the Sentinel hordes their old stories in an archive you have to pay for). Judge for yourself. As for me, I think Mayo wrote a fair column. The juror even said knew he was going to be "shredded" for it -- a lot of people were pissed to see an FBI agent get cleared in the outrageous case -- and that he was prepared for it. But when it happened, he lashed out at the messenger.

It's also pretty interesting that a street racing enthusiast sat on the Farrell jury.

My only criticism is obvious: I don’t think there’s any question that the editorship at the Sun-Sentinel should have done more than just “recuse” Robb from Mayo’s column. They should have disclosed in the column to the readers that Rich was, indeed, Robb’s nephew. Sure it might have made readers see it differently – and that’s precisely why it should have been disclosed.

By the way, Mayo is coming back full-time to the Sentinel next week after some blissful paternity leave. His pain will be our gain.

Here’s the Mayo column, in its entirety:

Sun-Sentinel (Fort Lauderdale, FL)
November 26, 2002 Tuesday Broward Metro Edition
The hardest six weeks of his young life were over, and he wanted a drink.

"A drink drink, or a soda?" I asked.

"A beer," Rich DeBerardinis said.

A few minutes later, he sipped a Budweiser and explained how he and five others reached a verdict that is sure to cause as much controversy as the case that spawned it.
Concluding that David Farrall was legally drunk on the night he crashed Into brothers Maurice Williams, 23, and Craig Chambers, 19, was the easy part.

"That took two minutes," DeBerardinis said.

Concluding Farrall was going the wrong way on Interstate 95 and thuscriminally responsible for two deaths was a leap they just couldn't make based on the evidence. It took three grueling days of deliberations for one holdout to switch, according to DeBerardinis.

"I know some people are going to shred us for this," DeBerardinis said. "But I'm prepared to deal with that. We did everything right, and we took this very seriously. This took a toll on everyone."

He said the six jurors felt a heavy weight from the case. Upon entering the jury room to start deliberations last Thursday, one woman broke down and cried. When DeBerardinis awoke Monday after a mostly sleepless night, he said he threw up from the stress.

He turned 21 during the trial, a full-time student at Broward CommunityCollege who has a full-time job with a medical monitoring company. He was acutely aware he was between the victims' ages, kept imagining his mother in the place of Florence Thompson, the victims' mother, who attended every day.

"I feel so bad for her," DeBerardinis said. "The first thing I wanted to do when it was over was give her a hug. I know she's probably angry with us and I can understand 100 percent. I wish I could have given the family closure and said this man did it, but legally I couldn't.

"We saw this as the prosecution had to prove two separate cases -- that Farrall was drunk and driving, and that he was going the wrong way. Thefirst case was a slam-dunk. But on the second, there was lack of evidence and a mishandling of evidence."

In the end, only Farrall and his attorneys walked out of the courtroom happy. He won't get his FBI career back, but he won't be spending the next three decades in jail. For everyone else, the ending was murky and unsatisfying.

"It's annoying," DeBerardinis said. "So many unanswerable questions. We're all searching for logical explanations, because two people who by all accounts were good people are dead and it doesn't make sense. I wish we could say definitively what happened that night but we can't."

This much is known: At 12:43 a.m. on Nov. 23, 1999, there were reports of a car hurtling southbound in the northbound lanes of I-95. A few minutes later, Farrall's dark green Honda and the brothers' beige Kia collided. Both were supposed to be heading north. Farrall was going home to Coconut Creek after a night of drinking, eating and watching Monday Night Football at the Quarterdeck restaurant in Davie. His blood alcohol level was .14 percent, above the legal threshold.

The brothers were heading to Florida Atlantic University in Boca Raton from Lauderhill after a night of church choir practice. They were sober. DeBerardinis said the jury discounted Farrall's testimony that he wasn't impaired and didn't believe him about the amount he drank.

"He sounded like a guy in denial," DeBerardinis said.

He also found it curious that Farrall didn't have any family on hand at the trial to support him. Still, they couldn't take the leap to DUI manslaughter.

"It's like [defense attorney Bruce] Udolf said: If you're drunk and sitting at a red light and somebody hits you, that doesn't mean it's your fault," DeBerardinis said. "We heard a theory that Farrall was more likely to have been going the wrong way, but it wasn't proved beyond reasonable doubt. There was just no way I could send somebody to jail for maybe the rest of his life based on 'more likely.'"

DeBerardinis had the harshest criticism for the Florida Highway Patrol,which initially blamed the brothers and then Farrall for the crash. He said the jury wasn't satisfied by the investigative and accident reconstruction methods.

"It reinforces the old knock against them -- unless it involves a radar gun, don't expect FHP to solve it," DeBerardinis said. "There's just no excuse for some of the sloppy work they did."

He said the stalemate in the jury room came to an end just after lunch On Monday, when the holdout juror, Manny Lugo, decided "there might be some doubt here."

"There was an eerie silence," DeBerardinis said. "Then we realized it was over."

He felt especially bad about the confusing manner in which the verdict was read. There were six counts against Farrall, and when the clerk started ticking off "guilty" to each many in the courtroom -- including Thompson -- didn't hear the part that said "to a lesser charge."

Believing her sons were exonerated, she began to cry and mouthed, "Thank you, Jesus."

"At first it sounded good," Thompson said later.

DeBerardinis said he was "shocked" the jury didn't include any blacks, but said the jury did not talk about the racially sensitive nature of the case until the verdict was reached.

"Somebody mentioned the Rodney King case," he said. "It's an easy thing to say and throw out there, that it was an all-white jury, but it didn't have anything to do with the outcome." As untidy and ambiguous as it feels, the outcome was the only oneDeBerardinis could support. "

There's a little anger, because he might have done this and killed two people," DeBerardinis said. "But we'll never know for sure."


In a story running today about John Lennon's "art" -- not music in this case, but drawings -- being shown this weekend in Delray Beach, Sun-Sentinel writer Ivette M. Yee describes the Walrus's work as "quick sketches" and explained: "With music being his meal ticket, Lennon indulged in art during his free time, but didn't fool around with it."

Ah yes, the quick strokes, the simplicity ... wait a minute. This is doodling, people. Doodling. Can somebody stop Yoko, no stranger to dubious art, from marketing the great man like he was some kind of Rembrandt?


The story of the day is Scott Wyman's piece on the controversy around knocking down Sistrunk Boulevard to one lane. This is a huge issue and John Rodstrom is totally right on this one. Sistrunk can be improved without jamming up downtown like a stuck cork.


Anonymous Pisces Trucker said...

Thanks for whittling this down for us Pulp man -- this post is about as short as the Talmud. I don't know if Bob Norman wrote this, but if he did, he's getting soft. The Sentinel was totally wrong not to disclose that this kid was Robb's nephew. I know Robb. I like Robb. But Robb should have demanded the disclosure himself, as metro editor.

6:59 PM  
Anonymous Sam Eifling said...

If you ask me, Mayo didn't go far enough. To get the true story, I generally offer my sources a hit of heroin before I turn on the tape recorder. Even if they decline, which is seldom, we usually hit the absinthe pretty hard after that anyway.

7:41 AM  
Blogger s.m. koppelman said...

Me, I haven't looked at the impact studies or the traffic stats, but I do know that a two-lane road with on-street parking is conducive to things like people walking around.

A four-lane road with no on-street parking, no matter how many trees you plant on it, no matter how froofy the lampposts are, ends up being a desolate, pedestrian-free race course.

The SE 17th St. Causeway area is increasingly congested. Has John Rodstrom sounded the alarm and demanded that the restaurant and knickknack district along Las Olas Blvd. be converted to a four-lane, 50mph artery too? Or is there one set of rules that applies to the working class residents along Sistrunk and the middle-class people gentrifying it, and another set of rules that applies to neighborhoods with $100-a-person restaurants?

The Las Olas strip, Atlantic Ave. in Delray, and downtown Hollywood aren't the best urban spaces around here because a bunch of restaurant owners decided they should be, but because they're conducive to walking around, which means narrow streets, low speeds and a buffer of parked cars between pedestrians and traffic.

Do Fort Lauderdale's neighborhoods and streets exist for the people in those neighborhoods or as rights-of-way for suburban commuters?

Opening (or preserving) more through arteries doesn't alleviate traffic so much as it allows and encourages more people to drive. It's not Fort Lauderdale's job to maintain itself in a dysfunctional state of pedestrian-unfriendly crappiness in order to make Plantation residents happy. What do Plantation and Sunrise sacrifice for the sake of Fort Lauderdale residents?

Speaking of which, Sistrunk is bracketed a half mile in each direction by Broward and Sunrise Blvds., each a six-lane artery and the neoghborhoods along it distribute local traffic along a traditional street grid pretty much immune to congestion. Last I checked, the suburbs to the west had their only through roads spaced a whole mile apart from each other.

9:14 PM  
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