BILL VARIAN and DAVID KARP
The diversionary program will allow a former prosecutor to avoid Bar discipline for improper comments in a trial.
TAMPA - Former Hillsborough Commissioner Stacey Easterling has agreed to enter a diversionary program to avoid Florida Bar discipline for improper comments she made as a prosecutor four years ago.
Bar lawyers have accepted the deal even though they have since learned of a second case in which she also allegedly made inappropriate comments.
If Easterling successfully completes the program, the year-old investigation would be closed and she would have no record of professional misconduct.
First a referee, who acts as a judge in hearings on Bar complaints, must accept the deal. Then the Florida Supreme Court must approve.
"I think it was an appropriate disposition of the case," said Scott Tozian, Easterling's attorney. "She was a young lawyer when it happened. She hasn't been the subject of any prior disciplinary inquiries. I think she was a very appropriate candidate for diversion."
If accepted by the court, Easterling would have to attend an ethics school for lawyers and pay $1,174 for the school and other costs. If she doesn't complete the program, the referee can find her guilty of minor misconduct.
The Bar Association accused Easterling of violating Bar rules that forbid lawyers from making false statements, treating opposing counsel unfairly and acting in a way that is prejudicial to the justice system. The complaint was based on comments she made during closing arguments in a 1999 case during which she suggested one defense witness was a drunk and that another probably testified between robberies.
The 2nd District Court of Appeal overturned the guilty verdict based on Easterling's comments, with the chief judge writing that they "made a mockery of the "neutral arena' in which a trial should be held."
The Bar reviews complaints against lawyers, and can recommend that a lawyer be admonished, suspended or even disbarred. Easterling could not be reached for comment. "I'm sure she's relieved that it's behind her," Tozian said of the Bar action. Bar investigators learned about the second case when they interviewed Easterling's colleagues at the State Attorney's Office.
"We are aware of the case," said assistant Bar staff counsel William Thompson. No formal complaint has been filed in that case, he said.
Former Assistant State Attorney George Bedell said Bar investigators asked him about Easterling's behavior in a drug case against Narada Burton, son of housing activist Connie Burton.
Narada Burton faced charges of dealing drugs within 1,000 feet of a school, the Sacred Heart Academy next to the Robles Park housing project.
Bedell, who supervised Easterling, watched her make her closing argument in the case. "It was kind of like watching a train wreck," Bedell said.
During the argument, Easterling told the jury that she had attended Sacred Heart Academy, where the drug dealing allegedly occurred, though prosecutors are not supposed to personalize cases.
"I left there about 16 years ago - gave away my age," Easterling said. "Left there about 16 years ago and started prekindergarten."
Easterling also told the jury that testimony of prison inmates could not be believed because inmates "hate" prosecutors. And she referred to the defendant, then a 20-year-old African-American male, as a "boy."
"Inmates have nothing better to do, but then to come down from the Florida State pen? Hell, it's a free ride," she said. "It gets them out of the jail cell for a while. That's why they're here. They hate to come, and they hate my office, and they're best buds with this boy here."
Easterling also offered the jury her opinion about the case, something prosecutors should avoid.
"By the law, he's guilty of dealing drugs within 1,000 feet of a school and no questions asked. That is what I put forth to you as what has happened plain and simple, and I don't believe anything else happened," Easterling said.
Afterward, Bedell told another young prosecutor in the courtroom not to follow Easterling's example. A month later, she would launch her political career.
Burton's public defender, Harvey Hyman, did not object to her arguments, a transcript shows.
Tozian said he does not anticipate the Bar coming forward with a new complaint.