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    Childers has new lawyer at retrial

    ©Associated Press
    October 7, 2002

    PENSACOLA -- Former Florida Senate President W.D. Childers returns to court this week with a new attorney and a different jury for retrial on a misdemeanor count of violating Florida's open-government Sunshine Law.

    The suspended Escambia County commissioner is accused of illegally discussing public business in private with two other commissioners.

    A hearing is set for Monday on defense motions related to pretrial media coverage, including a request to sequester the jury. Jury selection is scheduled to begin Wednesday.

    Even if convicted, the consequences would be negligible compared with what Childers could face when tried on felony charges of bribery, money laundering and unlawful compensation for an official act. That trial, previously set for Feb. 10, was delayed Friday until March 31.

    Childers is accused in the felony case of bribing another suspended commissioner, Willie Junior, with a pot full of $90,000 in cash to vote for the county's purchase of a former soccer complex for $3.9-million.

    He could get up to 25 years in prison if convicted on all three felony counts. The maximum penalty for the misdemeanor charge is a 60-day jail term and a $500 fine.

    The same judge, however, already has refused to jail another suspended commissioner, Terry Smith, on two Sunshine Law convictions, both for conversations with Childers. Smith instead was ordered to perform community service and pay fines and costs totaling nearly $5,000.

    Childers is being retried because his first jury deadlocked in June. It also convicted him on a second Sunshine Law count and acquitted him on two others.

    Assistant State Attorney Bobby Elmore, with one conviction in hand, could have dropped the hung-jury count, but decided to retry it instead.

    "It's a viable charge," Elmore said. "There is no absolute guarantee the first conviction is not subject to some kind of appellate challenge."

    Defense attorney Richard Lubin is staying mum on the decision to retry the case.

    "I have my thoughts, but I like to keep them to myself," Lubin said.

    Fred Levin, an old pal, defended Childers at his first trial. Levin is one of the nation's most successful personal injury lawyers, was a key player in Florida's $13-billion tobacco settlement and is the namesake of the University of Florida law school.

    But he is a novice in criminal law and has a potential conflict of interest because a partner is representing a couple who sold the soccer complex to the county and are facing bribery-related charges.

    Levin withdrew after the first trial. He was replaced by Lubin, a criminal lawyer from West Palm Beach with plenty of experience in high-profile cases.

    His other clients include Dr. Denis Deonarine, who is charged with first-degree murder in the death of a patient who overdosed on the painkiller OxyContin, and Allen Blackthorne, who was convicted of paying to have his ex-wife killed in the Sarasota home she shared with her young quadruplets.

    Lubin also has represented former Wall Street bond trader Kevin Ingram, who was convicted of money laundering related to illegal arms sales, and Dora Chong, who was charged with manslaughter in the drowning of her 2-year-old son in a swimming pool while she was shopping for fancy luggage in Palm Beach.

    Levin is not shy about expressing his views, but Lubin says little outside the courtroom. That goes for Childers' case.

    "I will try this case in court," Lubin said.

    That's where he argued long and hard during a Sept. 12 hearing for a change of venue because of pretrial media coverage in Escambia and elsewhere in the Panhandle.

    Okaloosa County Judge T. Patterson Maney refused to move the case, saying the diverse results of Childers' first trial show an unbiased jury can be seated in Escambia County.

    Lubin plans to make his venue motion again. He will ask another judge to move the felony trial, too.

    Lubin cites "prejudicial publicity" in his pending motion to have the misdemeanor jury sequestered and notes that Elmore agrees with his request.

    In addition, he wants potential jurors questioned individually, apart from other jury pool members on what they already know about the case.

    His final motion seeks more than the standard three pre-emptory challenges to potential jurors for each side.

    Childers is accused of discussing contracts for county construction projects with Junior and another suspended commissioner, Mike Bass, in a staff member's office.

    Bass and Junior have pleaded no contest to sunshine charges and have agreed to testify against Childers in deals with prosecutors, who dropped bribery and other felony counts against Bass.

    Junior pleaded no contest to bribery-related felony charges and could get up to 18 months in prison.

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