Wide disparities show up in prosecutor's sentencing numbers
Wide disparities show up in prosecutor's sentencing numbers
Wide disparities show up in prosecutor's sentencing numbers
By MICHAEL BRAGA and JOSH SALMAN
Sep. 09, 2018
MADISON, Fla. (AP) — Dean Morphonios was the sole prosecutor in this tiny Panhandle county for nearly a decade.
He's the son of a flamboyant Miami judge — Ellen Morphonios — but could not be more different in character and temperament.
Where his mother was bold and bawdy and bragged about her sexual conquests, he is humble, deeply religious and devoted to his wife.
Where she earned the nicknames "Maximum Morphonios" and "The Time Machine" for doling out long sentences to criminal defendants, he has a reputation for leniency and favoring probation over prison.
Where she co-wrote an autobiography and hosted a radio show for years, he prefers anonymity and declined to be interviewed.
Morphonios' mother, who died in 2002, was no racist. Morphonios isn't one either.
But a decade of crime data from the state's massive Offender Based Transaction System shows that black defendants he prosecuted for felony drug crimes spent four times longer behind bars than whites on average.
That places Morphonios, who was reassigned to Lafayette County earlier this summer, among the prosecutors with the widest sentence disparities in the state.
This glaring difference in outcomes for blacks and whites is what prompted the Herald-Tribune to investigate Morphonios as part of its three-year examination of racial bias in Florida's criminal justice system.
After the newspaper published its 'Bias on the bench' series in December 2016, some judges absolved themselves of blame.
They said if anyone is responsible for racial discrimination in the criminal justice system, it's the prosecutors. That's because they control the plea bargaining process where more than 95 percent of cases are settled.
Since almost all of Morphonios' cases ended with plea deals, it makes sense to point a finger at him for the disparities in Madison County, according to the judges' theory.
But talk to anyone at the local courthouse — defendants, clerical staff or defense attorneys — and they'll tell you they admire and respect the 62-year-old assistant state attorney and doubt race influences his decision making in any way.
"He's probably one the best prosecutors I've worked with," said Mutaqee Akbar, an African-American criminal defense attorney based in Tallahassee. "He's God-fearing and very fair."
Akbar and others say the same thing about Andrew Decker — Madison's lone felony court judge.
But when conversation turns to Sheriff Ben Stewart and his countywide drug task force, sentiment shifts.
"The drug task force is racist. You can quote me on that," Akbar said. "Madison is famous for racial profiling on I-10."
Akbar added that sheriff's deputies are known for seizing cash, cars and other assets from those found breaking the law.
"They get a lot of forfeiture money," Akbar said. "That's all they care about."
Stewart declined to be interviewed. He did not reply to an Aug. 6 email outlining the newspaper's findings.
His chief deputy, Epp Richardson, was initially helpful. But he, too, stopped returning calls and emails in early August.
During a conversation earlier this summer, Richardson said forfeitures had nothing to do with the number of his office's drug arrests.
"It's really not a business," he said. "It's an enforcement action."
To explore these issues further, the Herald-Tribune asked the 3rd Circuit Court, which includes Madison County, for all of Morphonios' felony drug cases from 2014 through 2016.
One by one, reporters opened the more than 320 electronic files and built a database with the names of defendants, defense attorneys and arresting officers, as well as the reasons behind the arrests, the points scored by defendants under state sentencing guidelines, and the sentences they ultimately received.
Also contained in the data are a myriad of details including fines and fees imposed on defendants, whether they violated probation or were found with a gun at the time of their crime.
After analyzing this information, combing through hundreds of additional documents provided by the Madison County Clerk of Court and interviewing more than 20 lawyers, court officials, county residents, criminal defendants and legal experts, the newspaper found:
—Sheriff Stewart grew his task force into one of the most productive drug busting machines in Florida — moving it from 50th in the state in per capita arrests in 2009 to third by 2015.
—The task force runs like a business. Money flows in from fines, fees, forfeitures and grants — at least $2.2 million over the past decade. It is used to purchase patrol cars, radios and other equipment. But when it comes to spending on inmates at the county jail, the sheriff is vigilant about containing expenses.
—Deputies arrest more blacks than whites — not only along the 30-mile stretch of Interstate 10 that cuts through the county but within Madison and away from the highway as well. While blacks represent less than 40 percent of the county's population, they accounted for 60 percent of the sheriff's felony drug busts from 2014 through 2016.
—Few felony drug defendants in Madison County — black or white — spend any time in jail or prison after their initial offense. A review of 321 defendants prosecuted by Morphonios shows that 70 percent spent no time in lockup. Only 22 received more than 30 days and all but four were black. It's only after violating probation that drug offenders start racking up serious time behind bars.
—For most felony drug offenders, the harshest punishment is monetary. Convicted black defendants leave court owing an average of about $1,700, while whites owe about $1,300. If they don't pay on time, the sheriff issues a warrant for their arrest, leading to more fines and fees.
In Madison County, it's all about the money, legal experts say.
"Everyone is happy as long as these guys are paying fines," said Kenneth Nunn, a University of Florida law school professor and assistant director of the Criminal Justice Center. "They're not that concerned that they serve time. If they served time, they won't pay the fines."
Nunn added that this is essentially a regressive form of taxation that preys on those with least political power — people considered "other," either because they're out-of-towners traveling along the highway or because of their skin color.
"Rather than this community receiving benefits from their government in terms of work opportunities, medical care, food and clothing, they are the ones supporting an institution that is doing nothing to change their condition," Nunn said. "What they're doing is supplying jobs to all the sheriff's deputies, all the jail employees and court officials. They are allowing these people to live middle-class lifestyles, while they pay the bill."
'I'd start a war on these drugs'
Madison County was settled in the 1820s by planters who farmed the land with slave labor.
For years, the county was among the most populous and prosperous in Florida — first harvesting cotton, then expanding into tobacco, timber and meat packing.
Today, Madison County is a placid backwater in a rapidly growing state.
Most of its thriving businesses are hotels and gas stations that cater to motorists traveling along I-10.
Many of its downtown storefronts sit empty.
"The county had a big meat packing plant, but that shut down in the early 2000s and lot of people lost jobs," said Andrea Oliver, a Tallahassee Community College professor who grew up in Madison. "There's definitely been a brain drain going on. The population is graying, getting older. The common denominator is economic depression."
Madison County has the highest percentage of people living in poverty in the state.
It has the second highest percentage of African-Americans.
It has the lowest median household income, and is one of only two counties in Florida to have lost population since 2000.
"There are no jobs," said Donnell Davis, who was born in Madison and runs an accounting office and a small convenience store in a black neighborhood south of the courthouse. "That's the biggest problem."
There is also an uneasy relationship between blacks and whites that dates back generations.
"We love each other on Friday nights for football," Davis said. "But other than that we live in different worlds."
Born and raised in Madison, Benjamin J. Stewart, 59, graduated from the only high school in town and earned a degree in law enforcement from North Florida Community College.
His personnel file shows he joined the Marine Corps Reserve in 1977 and worked as a dispatcher for a local electric company before landing a job as a corrections officer at the Madison County Jail.
When conducting a background check at the time, Joe Peavy, the Madison County sheriff in the 1970s and 1980s, said he got nothing but glowing recommendations.
"As a matter of fact, I'm not sure he can live up to all the compliments he received," Peavy, who died in 2016, said in a letter contained in Stewart's personnel file. "All were positive regarding his life in Madison County, his work in the area and his commitment to the Lord."
Stewart spent almost all his career with the sheriff's office.
He took a job as a dispatcher for the Florida Highway Patrol for a year and as an investigator with the state attorney's office for five more. But in 2000, he returned to law enforcement, climbing to the rank of captain.
When his predecessor retired in 2008, Stewart ran for sheriff on the pledge that he would stamp out drugs.
"When I ran, I didn't make a lot of promises," Stewart told the Tallahassee Democrat in June 2010. "But I did say I'd start a war on these drugs."
After taking office, Stewart immediately established a four-person drug task force and stepped up traffic stops and searches along the interstate.
At a time when drug arrests were declining across Florida, Madison saw its drug busts triple from just over 100 in 2008 to nearly 300 seven years later.
The business proved lucrative.
Stewart raised more than $800,000 in federal and state grants aimed at thwarting drug trafficking over the past decade, according to statistics provided by the U.S. Department of Justice and the Madison County Sheriff's Office. At the same time, his deputies seized at least $1.4 million in cash, cars, guns and electronic equipment — practically all of it the result of traffic stops along the interstate.
After one bust in November 2015, for example, deputies took nearly $14,000 in cash and a Glock semi-automatic handgun from an Orlando driver and his Tallahassee companion who had been pulled over for a window tint violation. Deputies didn't find much in the way of drugs — just three Vyvanse attention deficit disorder pills and marijuana residue on a digital scale. But they found plenty of cash stuffed in two Crown Royal bags.
Two months later, deputies stopped a pair of Miami residents for driving about 10 mph under the speed limit and for swaying in and out of their lane. A search of the car revealed just over an ounce of pot, a Bersa Thunder .40 caliber pistol and more than $25,000.
Then, in March 2016, deputies hit the jackpot when they pulled over a car for an expired tag. There were no drugs. But the two California residents were in possession of $188,000 — funds that were being used "to facilitate money laundering ... or to hide proceeds from criminal enterprises," according to the arresting officer.
There is no indication that Stewart — a member of Gideons International, an association of businessmen and professionals dedicated to spreading the teachings of Jesus Christ by disseminating Bibles — has used his office to enrich himself.
His net worth actually declined from $400,000 in 2012 to $175,000 last year, according to the state Commission on Ethics, and his annual salary has only slowly crawled past $100,000.
But the Madison County Sheriff's Office has benefited from Stewart's policies.
The office now employs 81 people. That includes 36 deputies — four of whom are black — making it the 11th largest sheriff's office per capita in Florida and one of the biggest businesses in Madison County.
Since 2009, its annual spending has increased 22 percent to nearly $6 million.
It collects at least $33,000 a year from fines charged to felony drug offenders and tens of thousands more from defendants convicted of other crimes.
Its ability to apply for grants and seize assets after drug busts only adds to its disposable income.
"It's a strain to have a drug unit, period, but it's a necessity," Deputy David Harper, the head of Madison's drug task force, told the Tallahassee Democrat in August 2010. "If it wasn't for the seized drug money, we'd have no equipment to work with."
Janetta Edwards was driving along I-10 in Madison County in February 2015 when sheriff's deputies stopped a friend she was following.
The 24-year-old black woman pulled onto the shoulder a few hundred yards up the highway and waited.
A dash cam video shows Deputy Doug Haskell trudging up to her car, leaning his head through the passenger window and asking Edwards for her driver's license above the racket of her yapping Yorkie.
Edwards refused and demanded a reason.
Haskell said she was traveling with another car that had been reported stolen and asked her to step outside.
Edwards, who had no arrest record, declined, saying Haskell had no right to make that request.
Haskell countered that he would put her in jail for obstructing justice and "light her up" if she didn't obey his command.
The standoff and intermittent shouting match lasted more than 13 minutes.
Haskell then gave Edwards a final warning and turned his Taser on her, while fellow deputy Bobby Boatwright pulled her from the driver's seat and hurled her down a grassy field along the shoulder.
Another video of the arrest from Haskell's body camera shows Edwards lurching off balance down the hill and falling to the ground against a metal sign post, where deputies cuff her hands behind her back.
All the while, Edwards keeps screaming, "You violated my rights. You violated my rights."
"You ain't got no rights," Haskell responded. "Stupid ass."
In his police report, Haskell noted four unspecified traffic violations and that a handgun had been found in the back seat of her car. The video shows it had no magazine in it.
For Akbar, the Tallahassee attorney who represented Edwards, the incident sums up the attitude of the Madison Sheriff's Office toward African-Americans.
But he was impressed by the way Morphonios promptly declined to prosecute.
"There was no legal reason to stop her," Akbar said. "She had a right to say I'm not getting out of my car."
In an October 2015 interview with WTXL in Tallahassee, Stewart defended his deputies' use of force, saying that a search of the car revealed stolen credit cards and other contraband.
"In my opinion, that's why she didn't want to get out of the vehicle," Stewart told the television station. "But sadly this officer took way too much time with her, spent too much time trying to beg her to get out of her car, just to avoid situations like this. He went above and beyond, and he's being portrayed as the bad guy."
Epp Richardson, the sheriff's chief deputy, said the case is being investigated by federal law enforcement officials. But more than two years have passed and no charges have been filed.
The incident is nothing out of the ordinary for black residents of Madison County.
"They stereotype our asses," said Kenneth Barfield, a 57-year-old black man who lives in a neighborhood off Martin Luther King Boulevard. "Me and you ride around for an hour or two and we'll have so many police behind us it won't even be funny."
Data compiled by the Herald-Tribune shows that sheriff's deputies arrest more blacks than whites in Madison.
From 2014 through 2016, deputies busted 78 motorists for felony drug crimes after traffic stops along the interstate — 55 percent were black.
By comparison, the Florida Highway Patrol arrested 48 motorists on the same 30-mile stretch of roadway during same three-year period, and only 27 percent were black.
Why the disparity?
The sheriff and his chief deputy would not answer that question.
Similar discrepancies appear when analyzing the Sheriff Office's drug sting operations, where undercover officers or confidential informants buy drugs from suspected dealers.
While 26 percent of all blacks arrested for felony drug crimes from 2014 through 2016 were caught in Sheriff's Office drug stings, that number drops to just 5 percent among whites.
Deputies also charge more blacks with selling drugs near churches, schools and other drug-free zones — statutory enhancements that can lead to much longer sentences.
And even though national studies show blacks and whites smoke pot at about the same rate, deputies arrested more blacks for the possession and sale of marijuana.
Richard Sutphen, a professor emeritus in social work from the University of Kentucky, said police arrest greater numbers of blacks across the country because more of their illegal activities take place in the open — in the streets and outside their homes — and more police are around to witness them.
Law enforcement agencies over-police communities of color as part of an unstated control and containment policy, Sutphen said.
"They don't want minorities all over the place," he continued. "They want to keep them contained and controlled in their communities."
There are several ways to do that. One is to criminalize them. Another is to burden them with debt.
"The idea is to keep people down," Sutphen said.
Madison is about far as you can get from downtown Miami and still be in Florida — maybe not in terms of miles, but certainly in terms of ambiance.
There's no traffic, no congestion, no skyscrapers, beaches or cruise ships. No hum, no buzz, no pulse of a rapidly growing metropolis.
Trucks loaded with tall pine logs rumble down country roads past undulating pastures, bearded oaks, ramshackle shacks and trailers, feed stores and junkyards.
Only 33 building permits were pulled in Madison County in 2017, according to the U.S. Census.
But this is where Dean Morphonios chose to practice law after growing up in the state's largest city — the son of a local celebrity.
A farm girl from North Carolina and former beauty queen, Ellen Morphonios moved to Miami in 1946 with her family, eventually becoming one of Florida's first female prosecutors and one of its earliest female felony judges.
An opening tale in her autobiography, "Maximum Morphonios," has her lifting her robes and revealing her ankles to a sex offender that she just sentenced.
"Get a good look at these gams, pal," she is rumored to have said, "because they're the last ones you'll be seeing for a long, long time."
Though Judge Morphonios insists the incident did not happen like that, she couldn't resist repeating it. And it certainly captures her bodacious character.
Married three times, Ellen Morphonios was the first to admit she had a weakness for men.
"There were times when I had a husband and a couple of boyfriends all wondering if I was being faithful," she wrote in her book.
Among her paramours, she counted former Florida Gov. Fuller Warren.
Ellen Morphonios was a Republican — a vocal backer of Barry Goldwater, Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan. But unlike other Southern conservatives at the time, she was an ardent supporter of civil rights.
She regularly championed the cause during her radio broadcasts, which prompted a tongue lashing from her first husband and Dean's father — Alex Morphonios.
"My radio program drove Alex crazy," Ellen Morphonios wrote in her book. "I was broadcasting at a time when blacks were rioting in the streets in many cities. I have never approved of violence, but I expressed my support on my show for the blacks' fight for freedom and equality. Alex, no friend of Martin Luther King Jr., hated that.
"'If you like blacks so much,' he said one time, 'why don't you go marry one?'"
Dean Morphonios, who once called his mother his greatest gift, made every attempt to replicate her career.
He served as a prosecutor in Tallahassee, ran two unsuccessful campaigns for judge in the 1990s and spent nearly 15 years in private practice.
He even defended his mother against a career-ending accusation that she accepted a bribe from a fellow judge. She denied the charges and was never convicted.
After her death in 2002, Morphonios took a break from the law. He bought an RV and traveled the country with his wife.
"We have been as far as Alaska and traveled to the Holy Land twice," Morphonios wrote in his resume.
Morphonios took a job as prosecutor in Madison County in 2009.
Here, he has handled more than 500 felony drug cases, including 321 from 2014 through 2016.
Those cases were evenly divided between black and white defendants. But blacks received sentences averaging 147 days behind bars — nearly four times as long as whites.
While that represents a wide disparity, the sentence lengths are short compared to other parts of Florida. In Jacksonville, for example, both blacks and whites convicted of felony drug offenses receive sentences that are three times more punitive on average.
"Dean is one of the most godly, religious and compassionate people I've ever met," said Jeff Siegmeister, the state attorney for the 3rd Circuit and Morphonios' boss. "I'd be shocked if there was any bias in his heart toward anything."
The problem, Siegmeister said, is that the sheriff and his task force see Morphonios as being too lenient.
"They want prison," Siegmeister said. "He doesn't."
So Morphonios compromises. He recommends more suspended sentences than any other prosecutor in the circuit, according to Siegmeister — a total of 47 from 2014 through 2016.
While those 35 black and 12 white defendants were technically sentenced to an average of six years in lockup, they did not spend a day behind bars as long as they avoided violating probation.
Morphonios also gave breaks to other felony drug offenders.
Of the more than 300 he prosecuted from 2014 through 2016, half got lenient sentences and only five received harsh sentences, according to the Herald-Tribune's leniency and severity indexes.
Even defendants arrested with quantities of drugs — indicating they were dealing or trafficking — got off easy when Morphonios was the prosecutor.
Derream Auguste and Dimitri Thompson, black men from South Florida, were found with more than four pounds of pot and a handgun in their car in 2015. They got pretrial diversion.
Greyson Davis and Haley Willard, white women from Panama City Beach, got caught with 11 pounds of pot the same year. They only spent one night in jail.
Then there was Tallahassee resident Quaneshia Rivers and Orlando resident Travoris Bunion. The black couple got busted with 24 pounds of marijuana in 2015. They spent no time in lockup.
All told, only three of the 54 defendants arrested with quantities of drugs in their cars — anywhere from three ounces of pot to three pounds of cocaine — received more than 30 days behind bars. All three were black.
The story was nearly the same for the 52 defendants who scored at least 44 points under state sentencing guidelines — the level at which prison is recommended. Thirteen got sentences of more than a month and all but two were black.
Because of Morphonios' leniency, not one felony drug offender he prosecuted from 2014 to 2016 went to trial — a significant savings for the court system.
Instead of jail or prison, defendants were sentenced to long periods of probation — averaging three and half years for blacks and just over two years for whites.
These lenient outcomes did not make sheriff's deputies happy and they often appeared in court to glare at Morphonios, Siegmeister and other attorneys say.
"There's a ton of pressure put on him," Siegmeister said. "But he's a man of ultimate faith. He tries to keep them happy."
Akbar, the Tallahassee attorney, said Morphonios is free to work out plea deals with defense attorneys and their clients for most crimes. But when it comes to drug offenses, he can't make a decision on his own. He has to check with members of the task force.
"These are the people he relies on for outcomes," Akbar said. "They're part of the negotiation."
Even though blacks prosecuted by Morphonios are found guilty more often and are less likely than whites to get pretrial diversion or have their adjudication withheld, Akbar said that doesn't mean Morphonios is biased.
"I see Dean as an advocate for civil rights," Akbar said. "He gives people a first opportunity to go on probation. When they violate, he lays the hammer down."
Of the 101 defendants who violated probation during the three-year period reviewed by the Herald-Tribune, 42 were given sentences of more than 30 days.
That number splits evenly between blacks and whites, but blacks got sentences that were nearly three times as long on average.
"Dean's a fascinating guy. He's very genuine and faith-oriented," said Lucas Taylor, a defense attorney who served as Madison's prosecutor before Morphonios. "He has always gone out of his way to give my black clients fair treatment."
Sheriff's deputies arrested Jessica Mauldin 10 times in 2017.
They charged the 31-year-old white woman with everything from petit theft and carrying a concealed weapon to assault on an official and possession of meth with the intent to sell.
In May 2017, they pulled over Mauldin's car and found a handgun and variety of drugs including pot, meth, synthetic marijuana, anti-anxiety meds and opioids.
Mauldin was eight months pregnant with twins at the time and the sheriff said he did not want to cover her inevitable hospital bill. So, he released her, triggering an article in the local newspaper.
In response, Stewart wrote a letter explaining that the jail has an average of 75 inmates at any given time, and it costs about $45 per day to house each of them as long as there are no medical issues.
"All medical costs for inmates come from the budget and straight from tax dollars," Stewart wrote. "The budget has basically been flat for the past eight years with no change in sight."
Stewart added that every dollar spent on an inmate's medical issues is one less dollar that can be spent on call center staff to take 911 calls, on deputies to respond to those calls and on corrections officers at the jail.
"As for Ms. Mauldin, it is my opinion that she needs rehab and medical care, not incarceration," Stewart wrote. "As long as I am sheriff, we will prioritize law enforcement, not maternity."
For the past 18 months, controlling jailhouse expenses has become something of an obsession for Stewart. He and his deputies have broached the subject at least eight times during Madison County commission meetings.
They have complained about above-average occupancy, spiking food and medical costs and even damage from a lightning strike.
In April, commissioners responded by providing the sheriff with $20,000 to cover some of his shortfalls.
The paid out at least $35,000 in October to satisfy overruns from the previous year.
The focus on rising jail expenses comes at a time of declining arrests and shrinking revenues from forfeitures.
In 2016, the Florida Legislature passed a bill making it harder to seize cash and other assets from criminals.
"Since the act, we haven't had an asset forfeiture in two years," said Chief Deputy Richardson. "Our fund is down to $50,000."
He added that a change in attitude under the Obama administration stymied efforts to process seized assets under federal law, but noted that might shift under President Donald Trump and Attorney General Jeff Sessions.
In the meantime, the Sheriff's Office has slowed its drug interdiction efforts and shuttered its interstate criminal enforcement unit that consisted of two officers. Drug busts dropped 24 percent in 2017.
"We're not out there like we used to be," Richardson said.
Madison ranked No. 23 on the list of Florida counties with the most drug busts per capita in 2017. That's down from No. 3 the year before.
But while County Commission minutes show the sheriff fighting for tax dollars to cover shortfalls, few Madison County officials express concern about the financial burden borne by drug felons.
These defendants usually leave court owing $500 in fines and another $1,500 in fees payable to the Sheriff's Office, public defender and the circuit court.
"If you're prosecuting me, why do I have to pay a prosecutor's fee?" said Sandra Gee, a 46-year-old Madison resident who has been arrested 11 times since 2015. "If you're sending me to court, why do I have to pay a court fee?"
Gee added that there are no jobs in town and much of the population lives in poverty.
"Most of the homes around here need to be condemned," she said.
In a county where the per capita income is $16,500, fines and fees represent a substantial setback.
"What I disagree with is people walking away from their conviction $2,000 in debt," said Billy Washington, the elected clerk of court for Madison County. "It may be the biggest debt they've ever had."
Washington added that some defendants get their driver's licenses suspended for a year or more.
That happened to 60 defendants prosecuted by Morphonios between 2014 and 2016. Two-thirds were black.
"Take away somebody's license and you take away his ability to sustain himself," Washington said. "To pay back the debt, you need a car to get to work. It creates a cycle."
According Sutphen, the retired University of Kentucky professor, that's the whole point.
"They won't say that's what it is," Sutphen said. "But the idea is to keep minorities criminalized, to keep them isolated and demoralized, to keep them down."
Information from: Sarasota (Fla.) Herald-Tribune, http://www.heraldtribune.com