Thursday, November 19, 2015


A long time ago, in a galaxy far far away, there was a young circuit court judge who had ascended to the circuit bench by winning a run-off election against an attorney with the unfortunate (for electoral reasons) name of Fritz Mann.

A candidate with the first name of "Fritz" just didn't play well amongst  Miami's Jewish voters, so a young man named Philip S. Davis, was elected to the bench.  Davis was known around the courthouse. He handled some criminal cases. He wasn't anything special, but then again, this is a judicial election we are talking about. So Davis beat Fritz Mann.

So much for name recognition in judicial races.

This was a time before the wheel, when any judge could appoint any lawyer on any number of cases. And did.

Then a darkness descended on the REGJB.  A cabal of Judges engaged in selling their robes, and judicial appointments, for cash. A rogue lawyer named Ray Takeff became a federal informant. And in 1992- a year that will in REGJB infamy- Judges Sepe, Gelber, Davis, and Shenberg and former Judge David Goodhart were indicted in what is infamously known as "CourtBroom". Shenberg, in a sting, sold what he thought was the name of an informant that would be killed for $50,000.00. He was on video stuffing the money the FBI handed him down his pants exclaiming that it was hard to send a child to college on a judge's salary.
A slew of lawyers were also indicted.
Gelber flipped and went to prison. Shenberg was convicted and sentenced to fifteen years for conspiracy to commit murder. Sepe had some acquittals and a hung jury and eventually pled out. All the lawyers either pled or were convicted and went to prison.

But Davis was acquitted although he admitted to taking over $30,000.00 in bribes. A stirring closing argument by former federal judge (He was impeached- don't ask- this is Miami) Alcee Hastings (who is now a congressman. Don't ask. This is Miami) resulted in Davis being acquitted based on an entrapment defense. (Don't ask....)
"And David came to Bar-perazm and David smote them there; and he said: The Lord hath broken mine enemies before me."
Samuel 5:19-21.

Davis's complete acquittal was biblical in nature. He was on tape and as guilty as could be. But he had a second chance.

(Cue Darth Vader Music).

Then in 2005 Davis was arrested and charged in Miami state court with an organized scheme to defraud, and grand theft involving a charity and government funds. He went to trial in front of Judge B. Butchko (Darth Vader music) and was sentenced to a whole lot of prison time; lets just say his probation starts in 2030. The death star destroyed Alderaan. And Davis was launched. Deservedly so. He sold his robes and then stole from a charity. Enough is enough.

Until a little item crossed our path. Davis is back, with an evidentiary hearing on a rule 3.850 motion before our own Judge Milton Hirsch, who as a prominent defense attorney at the time, must have watched the proceedings- as we all did- with a sense of abject horror and fascination. There is a reset date in early December on Davis's 3.850 motion. 

Davis wrought havoc and dishonor in this courthouse and the judiciary. He was often impaired on the bench. He said and did outrageous things on the bench, and humiliated defense attorneys and prosecutors alike, subject to his warped whimsy.

This is in all likelihood it for Phil Davis. He lost at trial and appeal and now the next fifteen years of his life hang by the thinnest of threads- a 3.850 petition.

His name evokes a dark era in the REGJB; when Judges sold their robes and office, and his colleagues stuffed money down their pants not caring that an informant would be killed. His fall from grace was breathtaking in its scope. He had it all. A secure job. Respect. Dignity. And even when given a second chance, he blew it for some easy cash, a charity be dammed.

The story of Phil Davis is a modern Shakespeare tragedy, in all it's ugly, gory, glory.
"The fault, dear Brutus, lies not in our stars, but in our selves...."
Julius Caesar, Shakespeare.

See You In Court.


Secret Judge said...

Phil Davis was the most disgusting piece of feces to ever sit on the bench in Dade County. Vile! He will burn in hell for eternity, and deservedly so.

Claude Erskine- Browne said...

To suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune......

Hot blonde esq to be said...

Law student at FIU here. We all read you. And when you write like this....it makes me really want to meet you. :)

Anonymous said...

You forgot to mention Phil doing crack in his chambers.

Anonymous said...

Ellsworth M Toomey: tell me, what do you think of me?
Howard Roark: But I don't think of you.

Anonymous said...

Remind me Rump - which judges were dirty but not charged and which judges snitched?

old guy said...

That was his defense. He claimed that he was so high on Cocaine / crack that when the taped bribe was given to him in chambers he actually thought that it was a campaign contribution in cash.
He may have broken the campaign laws, but he did not know that it was a bribe. Great work by Hastings. Real comment on the wisdom of jurors. Before he got disbarred, he actually hung around the REG hoping to pick up cases. HUGE BRASS BALLS!

Anonymous said...

Phil was human..and erred...he has five kids and i think one is a lawyer..her name is classy..we have Pollard being released today...terrorist in Paris...and MALI...I think alot of people question his 20 years sentence...was it payback for courtroom broom...reading this blog I noticed last week seems Hendon was target..this week davis...i attended a dinner last week and much was made of the fact that their hasnt been a black female circuit court judge in 20 years...20 years to much??? did phil ruin it for all women of color..??FREE PHIL DAVIS!!!

Anonymous said...

What is Phil Davis claiming in his 3.850 motion?

Anonymous said...

Phil Davis derserved to do some time for what he did. But the amount of the theft did not warrant a 20 year sentence. People who kill other people get less time. Butchko was a joke, not a crook, on the criminal bench. Thankfully she is out of the building.

Robert Kuntz said...

I wrote some of that story's early chapters. I was a reporter with the Review and I covered Court Broom from voir dire to the verdict. (I was playing cribbage with one of the defendants when the verdict came in.) I had covered the Noriega trial, too, which was nowhere near so interesting a trial but was much discussed during Court Broom, since Ray Takiff claimed the only reason HE hadn't been Noriega's lawyer was that it would have been a conflict of interest, as he was so busy in his work as a CI for the government -- in what would become Court Broom. To hear Takiff tell it, he'd have gotten Noriega acquitted if only he hadn't had to devote his time to delivering cash. (Including in actual brown paper bags. If Hiaasen put it in a book, his editor would call it out as cliche.)

Court Broom really did have everything. Some of the testimony was almost too dramatic to believe: Ellen Morphonios; Al Sepe's secretary; every word out of Takiff's mouth, but especially John Hogan's cross examination of Takiff (which made Takiff weep). Lots of simply tremendous lawyering -- indeed enough to make a mid-career newspaper reporter give it up for law school. It was like living inside a movie co-written by Goethe, Dickens and Elmore Leonard, and directed by Martin Scorsese.

Phil Davis walked out of that courtroom for a lot of reasons: Alcee Hastings' close was masterful (especially considering how little time he spent in the courtroom before that) and -- as I wrote at the time -- the prosecution badly misjudged the character and depth of the jury's sympathies, and made a key error going after Davis' wife far too hard when she took the stand.

But I don't think anyone who watched that trial thought that Davis was going to turn that victory into success. Most of the other defendants came off as arrogant or evil or both. But Davis just seemed . . . pitiable.

the trialmaster said...

Do not forget, Lady Ellen escaped prosecution and testified at the federal trial although not against any of the defendants. And the lawyers who would pay for Italian dinners at Joyce Cohen's old restaurant in the grove.Those were the glory years and put the "Market Connection" of Frank Martin to shame. Gelber got beat up in jail, deservedly so. BUt he was a great handball player for a fat man.

Anonymous said...

What ever happened to Ralph Person?

Anonymous said...

To "hot blonde esq to be" -- The men who post comments on this blog are more respectful to their female colleagues than you are to yourself. Have some self-respect. Get some counseling. Read a book. Grow up.

Anonymous said...

Just gives Hirsch the opportunity to write another Shakespeare-laden order in a high profile case. What makes you think he won't give Davis a third chance?

Anonymous said...

Still remember that great line by Phil when Takiff came sidebar abd said, on tape, and said, " where should I put it (the cash), and Phil said, "behind the baby powder". By the way, anybody remember who his trial lawyer was, on the 3 850?

Anonymous said...

I love John Hogan but he was not the trial lawyer who reduce the scummy lawyer Takiff or cheating judge Roy Gelber to tears; it was the legendary criminal defense attorney James "Jay" Hogan and, having been there as well, it was a thing of absolute beauty to watch.

Hot blonde esq to be said...

I will read a book. I'm going to read Fifty Shades of Rumpole.

Anonymous said...

Frankly, the verdict in the theft case was a surprise as the trial did not go well for the state. Butchko is probably a more vile criminal, 20 years was draconian. She had no respect for human life and was sociopathic in her sentecings.

Anonymous said...

Any comment about the "Washington whispers" blog item about the partial identity "of miami's secret legal blogger".??

Robert Kuntz said...

Anonymous at 7:20 you are of course completely correct. I meant to write Jay and wrote John and deeply regret the error. Hogan in that trial is a big part of why I switched careers at 33. (It's an error which, thankfully, I never made at the time.)

Jay Hogan was just amazing to me. Tall, long elegant hands, big-toothed smile -- and that unlit cigar that I don't think they'd let you walk around with in the courthouse these days. He was a consummate gentleman of the old school. He was totally at ease in the well of that imposing Central Courtroom and when he was up, every eye in the enormous place was on him. Judge Gonzalez didn't exactly defer to Hogan, but Hogan very certainly had the run of the place.

Ray Takiff had been all bombast and swagger (at least as much as he was capable of while claiming to be so debilitated with a heart condition that Judge Gonzalez reduced his testimony to half days). Hogan on cross was understated, leonine, and he stalked Takiff from the start. He built him up, asking about some of his exploits. (Takiff told a story about walking through a police line of a surrounded house, saying he would speak with "his client," and get him to surrender. Takiff said he then got into the house, handed the barricaded STRANGER a business card and got the case on the spot. True? Who knew? But Takiff told it like it was.) Then Hogan smoothly went in for the kill. I won't recall verbatim after all these years, but there was a moment. Takiff had claimed that, if not for being barred from taking the case, he'd have walked General Noriega. Part of what Hogan asked went something like:

". . . and you'd have gotten him off?"
"You'd would have WON that trial?"
"There wasn't anyone better than you?"
"No one."
"You would have saved the guy?"
"I would have."
"It would have been the case of a lifetime, right?"
[Starting to break] "Yes."
"But instead, all you are now is a rat?"
[In tears] "Yes. I'm a rat."
"You're not a lawyer anymore, you're just a rat?"
[More tears] "Yes. Yes. I'm a rat"

Anyway, that's how I remember it 20+ years later. But I'll bet, if you pull of the transcript, it was even better than that.

Sorry Mr. Hogan. The poster regrets the error.

Rumpole said...

Mr Hogan was indeed brilliant. No one better in a town full of amazing criminal defense attorneys.

Anonymous said...

Glad he is doing 20

Dont spit at the trial gods when you win like he did

Anonymous said...

Who is milena abreu and what Judge is she running against?

Anonymous said...

My cat Rufus T Longbottom mistimed his jump and is now stuck in the hamper.

chicken parm you taste so good said...

Stupid ball of fluff.

Anonymous said...

Robert Kuntz. I don't know you, but you are one classy guy and thank you for sharing your thoughts. I hope that you will continue to try to become a judge. I think that you would be terrific.

Anonymous said...

Milena Abreu works for the Office of Criminal Conflict and is a traffic court hearing officer. She's running against Fred Seraphin (who hasn't filed yet) in Group 5 of County Court.

Anonymous said...

Who did Hogan represent?

Anonymous said...

Running against Seraphin? You have my vote.

One of the worst cases of black robe fever i can remember. Guy totally turned for the worst when taking the bench.

Anonymous said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
JAI said...

Relatively new to Miami. Are there any books or documentaries on the Courtbroom story?

Robert Kuntz said...

I recall that Hogan represented David Goodhart, a criminal defense lawyer who acted as Sepe's literal bag man, delivering bribe money.

The irony was that Goodhart was convicted and sentenced, I think, to 8 years, at that end of the main trial. But Sepe walked from Court Broom, becuase the jury acquitted him on the bulk of the charges and deadlocked on half a dozen or so others. Harvey Shenberg -- they had video of him stuffing bribe money into his pants -- got 15 or so years on his convictions. The deadlocked charges got re-tried (I think Shenberg, Sepe and Goodhart all were part of the second trial?) and Sepe eventually served a year or two(?). (I think. Other blog denizens will check me if I have that wrong.)

I don't know of any books published on the trial. I covered it for The Review and David Lyons covered it for the Herald, so both archives should have plenty of work to read. David was doing daily coverage. I wrote once or twice a week, more long-form stuff.

Anonymous at 10:01, thank you for such a gracious compliment.

Rumpole, thanks for the chance to think and reminisce about one of the best stories I ever got to cover.

Anonymous said...

I am sure Mr. Kuntz will also confirm that with Alcee Hastings not attending most of the trial and Phil Davis performing a very poor job of cross examining witnesses against him as his own attorney, on several occasions Jay Hogan saved Davis' bacon by asking the right questions in the proper manner.

Anonymous said...

I for one would be happy to mentor hot blonde esq to be . . .

Robert Kuntz said...

Anonymous at 12:00 is completely correct about Davis' participation and Hastings' -- can we say -- less than perfect attendance record.

But I had a theory at the time, that I explored in a couple of stories, that Davis' bumbling -- even pathetic -- efforts at running some of his own defense actually worked substantially in his favor. The prosecutors were very strong (AUSA (now Mag. Judge) John O'Sullivan and Larry LaVecchio, on loan from the ASA). Indeed, I argued at the time they were too strong with some witnesses, especially Davis' wife. [LaVecchio, (I recall it as being his witness -- but years are long) grilling her about Davis' campaign organization, asked who was Davis'campaign manager. Her answer, spoken loud and proud: "Our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ." Now, heaven knows LaVecchio has tried a zillion more cases than I ever have or will. But at the time -- from the safety of my position as a non-lawyer pundit and peanut gallery commentator -- I wrote that it had sure looked like a mistake for him to ask several follow up questions that demonstrated his incredulity with regard to that answer. Especially when several of the jurors had highlighted their regular attendance at evangelical churches including, I think, a couple from the same denomination as the Davises. Those jurors responded with folded arms and scowls.]

Through the course of the trial, the entire dynamic vis-a-vis Davis seemed to shift in some jurors' minds, from "powerful corrupt judge caught at last" to "hapless, befuddled addict being bullied by the government." You could literally watch certain jurors shake their heads and hear them cluck their tongues at what the prosecution had to think were points scored on Davis.

The stage was set for Hastings' close, which was a frank appeal to emotion: Hasn't this poor fool suffered enough? Don't you know those drugs made him do it Why must they always bring a good man down?

I wrote at the time that I didn't think the prosecutors -- who had built a tremendously strong case layered with tapes and testimony -- who proved their case to everyone on the room NOT on the jury -- ever saw it coming.