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    Court orders new molestation trial

    An appeals court says the judge improperly cleared the courtroom.

    By WILLIAM R. LEVESQUE, Times Staff Writer
    © St. Petersburg Times
    published May 11, 2002

    For the second time in a year, a state appeals court has ordered a new trial because of procedural errors by a Pinellas-Pasco circuit judge.

    The 2nd District Court of Appeal ruled that 30-year-old Brian Keith Roberts, convicted of molesting an 11-year-old girl, should be retried because Judge Brandt Downey improperly cleared the courtroom for the girl's testimony.

    The girl had told prosecutors she was scared about testifying in open court because she thought members of Roberts' family were staring at her in an intimidating manner.

    State law allows a judge, in some cases, to clear a courtroom for a child's testimony. Immediate family of the victim and defendant are exempted, along with essential court personnel and the media, which did not cover the trial.

    But Downey, 57, a judge since 1984, interpreted state law as allowing only the victim's immediate family to view her testimony during the trial in August 2000. So he excluded Roberts' father.

    Downey suffered another major reversal in January when the 2nd DCA ordered a new trial in a first-degree murder case because of Downey's "blatant disregard" for instructions on how to pick a jury.

    While the appeals court sternly admonished Downey in the murder case, the language of Friday's decision was not critical of the judge. Downey did not return calls for comment. Pinellas-Pasco Public Defender Bob Dillinger, whose office represented Roberts, said reversals are a hazard for all judges.

    "I don't know if you can single out any particular judge," Dillinger said. "That's why we have appellate courts. Judges sometimes make errors."

    Roberts, who had no prior criminal record, was accused by the girl of forcing her to have sexual intercourse at her Dunedin house on the morning of Sept. 21, 1999, while her mother was at work.

    Roberts was convicted of sexual battery, which carries a mandatory life sentence, and lewd and lascivious behavior.

    The girl's mother said she was happy Roberts, of Dunedin, won a new trial because she thought her daughter lied about the allegations.

    "I believe he is innocent," said the woman, who along with her daughter is not named because of the nature of the charges. "I thought it was very unfair that the judge wouldn't let his family in."

    Others whom the judge excluded, including family friends, were legally barred from the courtroom.

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