an interview with the Honorable Stan Strickland
Just as the opening sequence of Beethoven’s 5th Symphony resonates with recognition in the ears of people who know it – Judge Stan Strickland’s words to Casey Anthony resonate – to those of us who remember them. The Judge famously said:
…….the truth and Ms. Anthony are strangers.
Of course, the irony now is the only charges with long-term sticking power against Casey Anthony were related to her untruthfulness.
In a trial that infuriated Florida while garnering national attention, then-defendant Casey Anthony was cleared of all serious charges against her. Some pundits have argued that lies were the cornerstone of the Anthony defense; lies and trickery parading as so-called reasonable doubt. And still, though the trial ended in July of 2011, stories related to it linger with the same Beethoven’s 5th significance – though with a darker tone to the heavy da-da-da-duuuuuumb!
Thankful to no longer be part of that reverberating bass, is the well-liked and popular Judge Stan Strickland, who presided over the Anthony case from its inception in 2008, until he recused himself (from the case), in April of 2010. Strickland, who retired from the bench on December 31, 2011, was the predecessor of Chief Judge Belvin Perry, Jr., who continued on with the Casey Anthony trial.
I had an opportunity to communicate with Judge Strickland, and when I asked if I could interview him, to my delight, he agreed!
What follows are the questions I posed to him along with his answers.
Andrea: Judge Strickland, you recently announced that, after 21 years of service to the Court, you will retire from the bench at the end of this year. First of all, congratulations! Are you looking forward to retirement? What will you do to keep busy?
Judge Strickland: Andrea, yes, I am looking forward to retirement. However, it will only be a retirement from the Bench. To keep busy I plan to help my wife and her brother with a small family business which they are trying to expand. Additionally, I plan to do meditations here in the Orlando area. Finally, I plan to do some writing. That should keep me plenty busy.
Andrea: You are going to be dearly missed in the Ninth Circuit. I cannot imagine anyone filling your shoes.
Andrea: The State of Florida’s Sunshine Law is very liberal. Because so many law enforcement and court documents were released, did the Sunshine law go overboard in the Anthony case? Do you think the Sunshine Law contributed to the oftentimes bizarre media frenzy in this case?
Judge Strickland: This is a great question! Obviously, Florida’s Sunshine Law is intended to be very liberal, and to let the general public “in” on matters of government, including the court system. It does get abused from time to time in civil courtrooms (frequently lawyers make public records requests, and then ask for attorney’s fees when the records don’t get to them quickly enough). As for the release of documents in the Anthony matter, the records did seem to make a bad situation worse. Even so, a judge doesn’t have any choice as to whether or not he or she likes the law, they just follow it. As you know, except for a few privileged or confidential items, virtually everything was released to the public in this matter. I was a little troubled by the videos at the jail being constantly released, but there was nothing I could do. In direct answer to your question, I do think the Sunshine Law contributed to the frequently bizarre media frenzy in this matter.
Andrea: When the Anthony verdict was read and the result was not guilty on the murder charges, an intense roar of anger from the public seemed to spread far and wide. In fact, people are still angry, as evidenced by the vitriol I read, not on this blog, but elsewhere. Do you worry that many in the general public have lost faith in our jury system? What would you say to people who believe the jury system is broken?
Judge Strickland: I do worry that the general public has lost faith in our jury system. In my experience I have found that the civil juries seem to work better than the criminal juries. I am not sure what causes the difference, unless it is the fact that I generally have far more experienced civil attorneys picking juries than what I had in criminal. Over the last three years, I have, literally, not had one jury decision that I found troubling in all of the civil cases that I have tried. For instance, in my final jury trial that ended late last week, I have never had a jury that was more engaged. They took copious notes, asked questions of almost every witness (juries are allowed to do that in civil cases), and did not get the case until 6:00 p.m. last Thursday night. They asked to stay late and finish the case, if possible, rather than coming back on Friday. Once they started deliberating they sent out something like eight more questions for me to answer for them. Then, at about 10:00 p.m. they returned a thoughtful, proper verdict that was pretty much in line with what I expected. Oh, and by the way, just before closing argument one of the jurors had his uncle die on the operating table while undergoing a kidney transplant. We took him aside for a few moments, let him make a few calls, and then brought him up to the bench to make sure he could continue. He actually asked me if he could continue on as a juror since he had come so far. Then, after I went back to speak to the jury to say thank you once the case concluded, he personally sought me out and thanked me for allowing him to continue to be a part of the jury. I was absolutely blown away. His jury service had meant enough to him that he stayed on through a family death, and even THANKED ME for allowing him to stay! Unbelievable!
So, to finish my thought, I am very disheartened about some of the decisions that I see from time to time (does any case come to mind here?). On the other hand, I can’t think of a better way to decide disputes.
Andrea: Some high-profile trials allow cameras in the courtroom while other courtrooms, in the same state, do not allow cameras. California is one example. If a Judge rules no cameras allowed, is that the final say on the matter? And, are cameras a disruption or a hindrance during trial, or does it just depend on the case?
Judge Strickland: As for cameras in the courtroom, I have never decided to test the system. In other words, we allow them here, and I would just as soon let them in and ignore them and continue doing my job. Do I think it’s a great idea? No! However, it has not been up to me as to whether or not they are allowed within the court, and I simply did not have the time or inclination to take on an individual battle. The cameras can be a disruption depending upon the attorneys trying the case. And, as you mentioned, it does depend on the case. All things considered, I would rather not have cameras in the courtroom.
Andrea: Why were gag-orders not imposed on the attorneys leading up to and during the Anthony trial?
Judge Strickland: No gag orders were imposed on the attorneys because there must be a great reason for doing so. Additionally, I had another reason for allowing them to speak out, which for the time being, I will keep to myself. In retrospect, maybe gag orders would have done some good here.
Andrea: I would think that reading case law is a constant for you. Do you have any time to read for pleasure?! If so, what do you like to read for pleasure; are there certain authors you particularly like?
Judge Strickland: I do have some time to read for pleasure. My favorite authors are James Lee Burke, author of a series of books about a Cajun detective named Dave Robicheaux. I also always enjoyed Carl Hiaason’s books, which were a lot of fun. But my favorite writer is probably a former sports writer/columnist, Dan Jenkins who wrote “Semi-tough”, “ North Dallas Forty”, and one of my all time favorite books, “Rude Behavior”. He is completely politically incorrect, and insanely funny.
Andrea: Were you always interested in the law and becoming a judge? What was it that inspired your interest in the law?
Judge Strickland: No, I was not always interested in the law and becoming a judge. I graduated from college and became a sales representative for a pharmaceutical company and was very happy doing that for about four years. Soon thereafter, a friend of mine decided to go to law school, and the more I spoke with her about it, the more I thought it sounded interesting. Almost on a lark, I applied and was accepted, and here I sit some thirty years later. At some point, I suppose my fascination with the law was overcome by the drudgery involved with being a judge.
Andrea: Judge Strickland, some Casey Anthony case-followers are trying to convince (via an online petition) the FBI to bring federal charges against Casey Anthony. The petition argues that “Ms. Anthony lied to the FBI, and should be charged with that crime.” The petitioners cite the Dual Sovereignty law, implying that two separate entities can file separate charges against a person, despite Double Jeopardy. Given that Ms. Anthony was not interviewed by the FBI, but by the Orlando Sheriff’s Office, and because of Double Jeopardy, I cannot see the FBI submitting new charges. Are my assumptions correct?
Judge Strickland: Regarding bringing Federal charges against Casey Anthony, I really do not see the point. I think your assumptions are correct here. I believe it to be a simple Double Jeopardy matter, and I doubt that any charges will be filed. Of course, I’ve been wrong about everything else. . .
Andrea: Defense and prosecuting attorneys are steadfast advocates for their cause / client. The Defense must do their utmost to ensure the government meets their burden of proof. However, sometimes a defense attorney decides not to put on a defense if they think the government failed to meet its burden. In your experience, have you seen Defense attorney’s rest without putting on a case? Is it a wise decision? And, is it difficult for juries to understand that the defense doesn’t need to prove anything?
Judge Strickland: I have seen defense attorneys rest without putting on a case hundreds of times. At times it has proven to be a wise decision, other times not. It depends on the evidence you have available, and the kind of presentation that you believe your client will make. The really good criminal defense attorneys generally make the right choice. They know that if the jury hates their client, their chances will be even further diminished.
Yes, it is difficult for juries to understand that the defense doesn’t need to prove anything. We go through this concept ad nauseam during jury selection, and most of the more enlightened folks seem to get it. Still, an abnormally large cross section of the public expects the defendant to prove he or she is innocent. It seems like a simple concept. I have no idea why it’s so troubling for some.
Andrea: I always believed that a trial’s main purpose was to search for the truth. Is that an idealistic assumption? When attorneys, generally on the defense, put up varying versions of the crime, but do not produce evidence of it, wouldn’t it harm the client and the attorney’s credibility? I often blogged that the Anthony attorneys, particularly Jose Baez, made statements during opening that were never proven. Is it okay for a defense attorney to suggest a theory of their case, even if they do not have the evidence to prove it? Is that considered unethical, or is it part of the defense’s responsibility to present whatever sounds logical?
Judge Strickland: Yes, a trial’s main purpose is to search for the truth, but that has turned into an idealistic assumption. Generally, if the defense attorneys suggest varying versions of events, but produce no evidence of it, it has in the past harmed the attorney and their client’s credibility. Mr. Baez’s opening statement was nothing short of bizarre. I truly have no idea what evidence he intended to put on to prove out that scenario. If there was no good faith basis for that opening statement then it was unethical. I guess it could be argued, however, that if his client told him that’s what happened, then there was a sufficient good faith basis.
Andrea: Before a trial begins, does the law require a defense attorney to share their theory of the case, like they do with discovery? Is there a rule in regards to this?
Judge Strickland: No, I know of no law that requires the defense attorney to share their theory of the case prior to a trial’s beginning. Some choose to do so in hopes of getting a plea deal, or having the case dismissed. Also, it is generally apparent from everything that goes on in discovery what a defendant’s theory of the case will be. In Anthony, it was a bit of a shocker.
Andrea: Do you have a theory of why Reasonable Doubt is a difficult concept for jurors? Or, is it difficult?
Judge Strickland: I have no theory of why Reasonable Doubt is a difficult concept for jurors. For starters, however, the definition that we read to them does not provide much help. In fact, the definition of Reasonable Doubt read to criminal juries in Florida needs to be revised in a hurry. We need to have a definition that common folks can understand, and make sense of. Over time Reasonable Doubt has turned into any possible doubt. Currently, it is not working too well. While we, as a society, are always very concerned (and rightfully so) about convicting an innocent person, a lack of understanding of the concept of Reasonable Doubt has led to the acquittal of many criminal defendants who were quite obviously guilty.
Andrea: It was mid-stream in the Anthony case when, as a result of what I believe were unfounded defense allegations, you recused yourself from the case. I have a feeling that, if you had it to do over, you would be just as cordial today, in open court, as you were then to blogger, Marinade Dave. Am I correct?
Judge Strickland: You are absolutely correct. My life as a Judge has been an open book. I thought Dave Knechel was doing a fine job blogging on the case, and I told him so in front of everyone. My exact words to him were that, “I think your blog is very civilized”. There is actually another huge irony in my recusal from this matter, it has to do with my feelings about the death penalty. In summary, I’ll just tell you that it was a real master stroke by the defense! (Sarcasm intended.)
Andrea: Regarding your conversation with Marinade Dave, you may not be aware of this, but after you stepped down from the case, there was a small but very loud contingent of angry people who were crude and offensive toward Dave, blaming him for your decision to leave the case. What would you say to people who engage in such ugliness and cyber-bullying?
Judge Strickland: I am aware that a small but angry contingent of people were crude and offensive toward Dave Knechel, blaming him for my decision to leave the case. This would be silly except for the fact that I think it hurt Dave terribly. It was also untrue. I left the case because, in a case like this, the Judge should not be the focus, the case should. It is also true that I called Dave after his stint in the hospital to make sure he was okay. The conversation lasted perhaps a minute and a half. Again, another egregious example of judicial bias. As you have heard me state in the past, I commended him for trying to be fair to both sides in this matter, rather than letting the blog run wild with talks of killing the defendant and/or her family.
To people that engage in this type of ugliness and cyber bullying, I really have nothing to offer, other than saying I simply don’t understand.
Andrea: Jurors listen to hours and hours of testimony. Cognitive researchers have long known that the human brain simply cannot store or retrieve large amounts of information they hear, whether it’s in a classroom setting or during a trial. Jurors are allowed to take notes regarding what they hear, though not all people are skilled note-takers. Therefore, if jurors do not take notes, and they can’t possibly retain all the evidence they hear, is this not potentially harmful to a defendant?
Judge Strickland: Yes, your scenario is potentially harmful to a defendant. It is also potentially harmful to the State to a possibly even greater degree. This is because the State has the burden of proof, and at the end of a lengthy trial the defense attorney can stand up with a pious glow and proclaim, “look, it is time for us to go home. The State had the burden of proof here and they simply did not prove their case. Reasonable doubt lives here. Let’s go home.”
The lack of notes, confusing notes, conflicting notes – all of those scenarios generally play out more in favor of a defendant rather than against him or her.
Andrea: What part of the trial do you enjoy the most?
Judge Strickland: The part of the trial that I enjoy the most is the end of it. Seriously, I truly enjoyed very few trials. The ones I did involved great lawyers who were sensitive to the jury’s time and needs, and actually concerned with justice. Those trials were extremely rare, but wonderful. I also enjoy saying goodbye to the jury and getting their thoughts on what just happened. It is frequently very enlightening.
In closing, I wanted to commend you on your blog. Yours, Dave’s, and three or four others have always been very enlightening, and very fair. While I have gotten away from visiting them regularly, I do recall that, just before the trial started, your blog may have been the first to indicate that the defense theory was to blame George for everything. Certainly a prescient call by you. In closing I would just urge you to keep fighting the good fight, and printing the truth. Your friend, Stan Strickland.
Andrea: The truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth about his Honor, Judge Strickland? He is unparalleled in kindness – a very, very nice human being. Thank you again, Judge! Your friend, Andrea.
The reflections on being a Judge, written by Socrates long, long ago, seem to be written for Judge Strickland:
Four things belong to a Judge:
to hear courteously,
to answer wisely,
to consider soberly, and
to decide impartially. ~ Socrates