H.L. was arrested for aggravated assault with a deadly weapon in St. Lucie County on May 28, 2009. His family retained Jeffrey H. Garland the same day. The family’s quick action in retaining counsel allowed Garland to attend the first appearance hearing on the morning of May 29.
A quick review of the police investigative report suggested that bond would probably be very high – unless decisive action was taken. The wife reported to police that H.L. “got very upset and pulled a gun out and put the gun in her face and went back to verbally abusing her”. The police report asserted that this was the “second time since 2005 that the above parties have had domestic disputes”.
Several days before the arrest, H.L. was served with a Petition for Domestic Violence Injunction. The Petition contained a detailed affidavit, wherein the wife set forth a litany of horrors: verbal abuse, threatening with a gun, derogatory comments. The wife asserted that she passes “every day and night with nightmares, and fear for my children’s life and mine”. It did not mention, however, the incident which supposedly occurred on May 21, 2009.
Attorney Garland made a tactical decision to make an extensive presentation at the first appearance hearing. The presiding Judge, Thomas J. Walsh, Jr., was at first reluctant to allow such evidence. He relented upon hearing H.L.’s 20-year-old daughter describe past incidents, during which the wife/mother was the aggressor. In a previous circumstance, the wife held a gun to her own head to coerce her daughter into not dating a young man who did not meet her mother’s lofty expectations.
At the first appearance hearing, the defense introduced a copy of a police report describing an incident on May 21, 2005 (exactly four years before). This was the supposed incident of previous domestic violence referred to in the more recent report. On May 21, 2005, Fort Pierce Police Officer Martin Ortiz responded to Lawnwood Regional Hospital. Ofc.Ortiz interviewed the wife, who claimed that her husband became “physical” with her, then pushed her to the floor and attempted to smother her with a pillow. She asserted that this incident occurred in the back yard, and that she suffered minor bruises on her arms as a result of the attack. She claimed that the abuse had been going on for 18 years.
Ofc.Ortiz did not end his investigation with this unsubstantiated claim. Ofc.Ortiz spoke with a nurse, who believed that the wife was only pretending to be unconscious. Ofc.Ortiz then interviewed the husband, who explained that his wife had been having mental problems for many years and suffered from depression. The husband told Ofc.Ortiz that his wife was in the back yard and wanted to “see the angels”. The husband said he attempted to calm her, but the wife began to fight him, because she wanted to see the angels. Meanwhile, a separate police officer met with the couples’ children. The children explained that their mother was crying hysterically and could not control herself. The mother wanted to stay outside to see angels which had come to get her. At that time, the wife refused psychiatric care, because she did not want to be viewed as “crazy”.
After considering the defense presentation, Judge Walsh set bond at $10,000.00 with no contact.
The State filed a formal charge of aggravated assault with a firearm. The State offered to accept a plea to a mandatory minimum 3-year prison term, to be followed by two years of probation. As a condition of the plea, H.L. would have been adjudicated guilty, required to forfeit his firearms, pay costs of prosecution and investigation, and agree to no contact with the wife or her property. He rejected this unjust outcome immediately.
Attorney Garland secured the 911 telephone call via a public records request. During this May 21, 2009 call, the wife never mentioned a gun. She never mentioned the May 21, 2009 incident when she filled out the injunction affidavit. It seemed bizarre that the wife would not mention the gun incident, since it supposedly happened the day before she completed the affidavit.
After being released from jail, H.L. found out that his wife had “emptied” a bank account of more than $53,000.00 on May 26, 2009. Records showed that the wife had removed significant funds from other accounts in the previous months.
Attorney Garland was advised that a Spanish interpreter would be necessary when taking the deposition of the wife. Scheduling the wife’s deposition became a problem: she did not make herself available.
The defense investigation established that the wife spoke in English to Ofc.Derek Dawson on May 22, when she appeared at the Fort Pierce Police Department. The evidence showed that the wife filed for the injunction on the same day. The injunction petition was personally filled out by the wife in English without an interpreter.
H.L. was served with the injunction on the afternoon of May 22. Because of the injunction, H.L. could have no contact with his wife and could not return home.
On May 23, the defense found out that the wife had called the Fort Pierce Police Department to complain that H.L. had not come home. Sgt. Rodney Nieves met with the wife at her home on May 23. The wife advised Sgt. Nieves that she could barely walk, and that one arm was almost paralyzed. Sgt. Nieves later testified at deposition that this information shocked him, because she told Ofc.Dawson that she walked from her home to the police station, a distance of some 35 blocks. Sgt. Nieves confronted the wife with this information. The wife confirmed that she walked to the police station, because she did not have a car. Incredibly, she admitted walking an additional 10 blocks to the courthouse, then all the way home.
Sgt. Nieves spoke separately with the couples’ 12-year-old son and 16-year-old daughter. Both children said that, two days prior, the mother had tripped on a concrete block on the patio. Both children said they were present, and said that H.L. did nothing improper. The children also verified that their mother had a working automobile parked in the driveway at all times. There was, in fact, no reason for the wife to have walked anywhere.
Sgt. Nieves speaks Spanish fluently, but never needed to with the wife. At all times, Sgt. Nieves spoke with the wife in English.
Sgt. Nieves went to the hospital to investigate the 2005 incident. As part of this investigation, he interviewed the wife. The wife told Sgt. Nieves that she had seen and been talking to angels. Sgt. Nieves said he received information from hospital workers that they thought that the wife was “faking it”.
Attorney Garland presented his investigation to the State Attorney’s office. The prosecutor did not want to take action, until the wife explained herself in a deposition. As already noted, the wife would not make herself available for deposition.
While the criminal case was dragging on, discovery in the divorce case continued, and visitation took place as ordered in the injunction case.
The wife claimed to be entitled to permanent alimony because of physical disability. The wife had coached a girl’s soccer team and was a waitress until just weeks before the May 21, 2009 incident. These activities, as well as the aforementioned 35-block walk to the police station, contradicted her disability claim. The wife’s false disability claim would have been admissible to establish bias, motive or interest in the criminal case.
The wife claimed that she had taken funds from the bank accounts for medical treatment. However, she never produced records of any medical treatment. The removal of the bank funds would have been admissible in a criminal case to show motive and to establish deceit. The same evidence would have entitled H.L. to a special set-off against the assets which would be distributed in the divorce case.
The prosecutor caved to the reality of the situation when confronted with these facts and the failure of the wife to make herself available for deposition (in either English or Spanish). The prosecutor filed a nolle prosequi of the criminal charge on October 21, 2009.
The wife (soon to be former wife) requested to dissolve the injunction. The request was granted on November 25, 2009.
Far from profiting from the false accusations, the wife has lost both her husband and the bulk of assets which she thought she would be awarded!
COMMENT: The criminal “just us” system tends to grind down and spit out those who oppose it. A good outcome is often best reached by working within the system. In this case, Attorney Garland at all time showed respect for the law enforcement officers involved in the case, and in the previous investigation. The dismissal was obtained because of their good work and willingness to seek justice, not just to prosecute people. Attorney Garland salutes Sgt. Nieves, without whose help this case would not have resolved quickly.
State v. H.L.
St. Lucie County
(further information withheld; initials are substituted)