Sunday, 25 March 2007

Don't even try it in his court

Don't even try it in his court

Step out of line with this criminal court judge, and he will let you know, loud and clear.

Published March 24, 2007


The man in the black robe leaves no question about who controls Courtroom 12.

He hands down harsh sentences to defendants as he compliments their attorneys. He loses patience with incompetence and unleashes his temper on the unprepared. He orders handcuffs for those who show up late.

"I should bury you under the Florida state prison," he told a repeat offender at a sentencing last month.

This is not Harry Lee Coe risen from the dead. It is Circuit Judge Ronald Ficarrotta, who cut his teeth as a prosecutor in Hangin' Harry's court and now inhabits the chambers once occupied by the former judge.

There, this month, Ficarrotta suppressed a murder defendant's confession and altered the course of the highest-profile case to come before him yet. Courthouse observers say the ruling in the David Lee Onstott case stayed true to the judge's letter-of-the-law attitude even if it might be politically unpopular.

"He has always been an individual that has made sure that the law was going to be carried out in a very fair and just manner," defense attorney Richard Escobar said. "You really ought to admire someone like this because he really has made the tough decision."

Though the Onstott case has gotten a lot of media attention, the bulk of cases on a Tampa criminal judge's crowded docket play out anonymously on the dingy ground floor of the Hillsborough County Courthouse annex.

Ficarrotta, 48, has roamed these halls his entire legal career. Inspired by his older attorney brother Joe's criminal defense work, he left his birthplace to attend the South Texas College of Law. Back in Tampa, he began working in 1983 as a prosecutor under then-State Attorney E.J. Salcines.

He rose to the position of felony division chief, earning a reputation for being tough but fair. Defense attorneys knew he was loath to give defendants breaks unless there was enough evidence to convince him a case should be worked out rather than tried.

He prosecuted a multitude of murder cases. Three times he asked for the death penalty. All three defendants got prison time instead.

In one of those cases, he asked 30 law enforcement officers to pluck their pubic hairs for testing to rule out a suspect's suggestion that a hair found at the crime scene wasn't his. Death penalty cases, Ficarrotta said at the time, required extra care to ensure that "justice is done."

Then-Gov. Lawton Chiles named Ficarrotta a county judge in 1994. At 35, he was the youngest judge in the circuit and one of the youngest in the state. He cried through his investiture, earning the nickname "Baby Judge."

When then-Gov. Jeb Bush used his first judicial appointment in Hillsborough to promote Ficarrotta to the circuit bench five years later, the judge brought a box of tissues to the investiture and promised not to cry.

He presided for a brief time over family court - "Horrible," he told a group of visiting students recently - before returning to his preferred quarters in the criminal courthouse.

"This is as real as it gets," he said.

He has a picture in his office of himself and other attorneys with Coe, who retired from the judiciary, became state attorney and ultimately took his own life.

Attorneys say Ficarrotta echoes some of Coe's courtroom habits, even parroting his words about when motions will and will not be heard. All motions heard prior to the trial. No motions will be heard on the day of trial.

"Those words come right out of Harry Coe's mouth," defense attorney Anthony Marchese said. "Those exact words."

But Ficarrotta's headlines come from the cases he handles, not from eccentricities and personal troubles. He presided over Bubba the Love Sponge Clem's animal cruelty trial in 2002. The radio shock jock, acquitted of cruelty after orchestrating the castration and slaughter of a wild boar in his radio station's parking lot, "was always a gentleman in court," the judge said.

Visitors to Ficarrotta's court, including the families of defendants, get exceedingly polite treatment. Fellow judges praise his professionalism and have twice voted him to represent them in the state conference of circuit judges.

But speak out of turn, or dare to slow the greased wheels of his docket, and his smile will fade faster than you can say "guilty." He has made young prosecutors cry.

"He can be abrupt," said defense lawyer Pat Courtney, but "he will listen to everything you have to say. Every mitigator, every witness."

Ficarrotta's decision to throw out Onstott's confession to killing 13-year-old Sarah Lunde in April 2005 put that trial on hold indefinitely while prosecutors appeal the ruling.

If the case still goes to trial, it will be the first death penalty case Ficarrotta has presided over as a judge.

He said he has watched closely Citrus County Circuit Judge Ric Howard's handling of the John Couey trial, another case involving a murdered young girl, a tainted confession and a possible death penalty.

On a recent afternoon, Ficarrotta had retreated to his chambers after sentencing an 18-year-old man to 20 years in prison for armed robbery, when news that a verdict had been reached in the Couey case scrolled across the TV screen.

The judge turned up the volume.

"John Evander Couey, please rise and harken to the jury's verdicts," Howard said on TV.

Ficarrotta smiled.

"I like that 'harken' part," he said. "I might have to use that one."

Colleen Jenkins can be reached at (813) 226-3337 or

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