Did a Tampa judge’s comments cross a line in juvenile shooting case?

Did a Tampa judge’s comments cross a line in juvenile shooting case?

TAMPA — What’s the appropriate punishment when a teenager fires a handgun amid a youthful quarrel, resulting in the wounding of a 9-year-old bystander?

In a Tampa courtroom last month, the possible outcome appeared to be some form of juvenile sanctions — like probation and community service — rather than the heftier penalties regularly dished out to adults.

Judge Michael Williams wouldn’t have it.

“I am not comfortable doing juvenile sanctions in that situation,” he said from the bench.

Juvenile probation would be “a nothing sentence,” the judge said. “That’s acting like it didn’t happen, to the court.”

Those and other comments Williams made at a Feb. 14 hearing became the basis of arguments from the Hillsborough Public Defender’s Office to disqualify him from hearing similar cases.

The office in recent weeks filed motions on behalf of at least six juvenile defendants charged as adults, saying Williams’ comments “illuminated a bias.” They argued his words would cause any juvenile appearing before him to fear they would not get a fair trial or hearing.

The judge, who presides over adult-level felony cases, expressed frustration in the hearing at local prosecutors bringing adult charges, then asking for juvenile penalties.

“If the State Attorney’s Office wants to do juvenile sanctions, leave them in juvenile,” he said. “Stop filing them here. Because I’m tired of you guys coming in here andasking me to do juvenile sanctions.”

On Tuesday, in response to the public defender’s requests, Williams disqualified himself from the shooting case, but declined to do so in the rest.

In a written order, he noted that his comments were focused on the state’s practice of asking for juvenile sanctions in a case’s early stages. He denied that he was expressing a position on ever imposing juvenile sanctions in an adult-level case. He also pointed out that he has previously approved juvenile sanctions in other adult cases.

The dispute, and the case from which it arose, raise complicated questions of judicial discretion and how the legal system should address youth violence.

A shooting

This all started in the case of a 17-year-old boy known as “Theo,” who the Tampa Bay Times is not naming in this story because of his age.

He’s accused of firing a gun in a May 13 argument in the Grant Park neighborhood, on Tampa’s eastern edge. In the crossfire, a 9-year-old boy was wounded.

About a month after the crime, Theo was charged as an adult — a legal process commonly referred to as a “juvenile direct file” — with aggravated assault and several other offenses.

In January, his public defender filed a plea paper, which noted his intention to plead guilty. The paper also noted that prosecutors were amenable to juvenile sanctions, allowing the teen to avoid an adult sentence.

Williams wanted to know more.

On Feb. 14, Tampa police Detective Alex Christon testified, summarizing the investigation.

The shooting happened after a fight broke out among girls over “relationship issues,” the detective said. Someone made a phone call to the brother of one of the girls, telling him “they’re jumping your sister.”

Theo, the brother, showed up minutes later on a bicycle. The fighting continued. Then came gunfire.

Arriving officers found the victim shot. In court, it was said that he later made a full recovery.

The boy was not involved in the argument. He was only there with his older sister and her friend, who were.

The girls told police there was only one shooter. But at the crime scene, officers collected bullet shell casings that came from two different guns, a .40-caliber and a 9 mm.

They would find a .40-caliber handgun in a backpack that was seized from the boy’s sister’s friend. She later admitted she’d fired the weapon, the detective testified, but only after someone began shooting at her. She was not arrested or charged.

Theo was alleged to have had the 9 mm.

The bullet that struck the child was not found, so police could not determine which gun actually wounded him.

Judge Williams asked whether law enforcement had a position on what should happen with Theo.

“I’m neutral,” Christon said.

The judge also asked the victim’s mother what she wanted.

Speaking softly through tears, she seemed unsure.

“This is my first time dealing with a situation like this,” she said.

The hearing

Lawyers had few answers when Williams asked why the state was OK with juvenile sanctions.

Assistant State Attorney Amanda Torres said she inherited the case from a different prosecutor, who negotiated the agreement with the defense.

“I understand the court’s frustration,” she said.

Assistant Public Defender David Hall said his client had been working and staying out of trouble since his arrest. He also noted that officers who investigated the crime confronted a chaotic scene, and a difficult investigation.

The judge mentioned the problem of gun violence in Tampa, alluding to the 48 homicides that occurred in the city in 2021, more than any other recent year.

“It’s regrettable that someone brings a firearm to a childhood dispute,” the judge said.

Williams remained reluctant to accept the boy’s plea.

“I’m just tired of (the State Attorney’s Office) filing them up here and then coming in here and asking me to take a juvenile sanction,” he said. “I take shooting cases differently, I guess, than some people. You pull a firearm and you point it somewhere and you pull that trigger, that’s a game-changer for everybody involved. I don’t have any sympathy in those types of cases.”

He mentioned he’d previously presided in the court’s juvenile delinquency divisions. He said kids there complete community service, then end their probation early after nine months.

The defense noted it hadn’t been established that Theo fired the shot that hit the 9-year-old.

It didn’t matter, Williams said. “If two people shoot at each other and someone else gets hit, that’s on both of them.”

The backdrop

All this occurred against a backdrop of a local justice system that in recent years has seen strides to reduce the number of juveniles it charges as adults. Hillsborough once led the state in such cases, with hundreds of kids charged as adults each year.

Hillsborough State Attorney Andrew Warren made reducing the numbers a priority after he took office in 2017. In 2019, juvenile direct file cases reached a low of 33, according to data from Warren’s office. But the numbers ticked back up to 46 in 2020, and 61 in 2021.

“We believe Judge Williams is a fair and impartial judge,” Grayson Kamm, a spokesman for the State Attorney’s Office, said in a statement. The office files adult charges to broaden the range of options available, Kamm said, including adult probation and confinement and the ability to detain defendants for longer. He said it is infrequent that the office ultimately agrees to juvenile sanctions after a case is filed in adult court.

He also noted that prosecutors weren’t specifically asking for juvenile sanctions in the shooting case.

The defense motion to disqualify includes a footnote stating their request was only for the judge to accept a guilty plea, after which the Department of Juvenile Justice could make a sentencing recommendation. The state would be agreeable to juvenile sanctions, if recommended.

While a judge has discretion to accept a plea offer, the decision can’t be based on “disdain for the juvenile sentencing law or his aggravation on how the State Attorney’s Office chooses to exercise its discretion,” the note stated.

Did the judge’s comments cross a line? It’s not clear.

Louis Virelli, a professor at Stetson University College of Law, said it would not be disqualifying for a judge to hold a preconceived view of the law and how it should work, as long as the judge was willing to follow the law.

“None of our judges are blank slates with respect to the law,” Virelli said. “Otherwise, they wouldn’t be qualified to be judges.”