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Prosecutor sentenced in DUI case

Lydia Wardell, known for aggressive pursuit of such cases in Pinellas, expressed remorse for her actions.

By VANESSA GEZARI
Published February 3, 2005


TAMPA - Wearing a dark suit and pearls, Lydia Dempsey Wardell looked every inch the successful lawyer as she stood Wednesday before a judge in a Hillsborough County courtroom.

But on this day, Wardell, a hard-nosed Pinellas prosecutor, was a defendant, about to be sentenced for driving under the influence of alcohol in November with her two young sons in the car.

An attorney spoke on her behalf. Friends and relatives encircled her protectively. Judge Thomas P. Barber asked whether she had read and understood a plea agreement under which she would serve 18 months probation, submit to random urine tests and spend 10 hours talking to schoolchildren about the dangers of drinking and driving.

"Yes, I have," Wardell said softly.

Wardell, known for her aggressive pursuit of DUI and other cases as one of two misdemeanor court supervisors for Pinellas-Pasco State Attorney Bernie McCabe, was arrested Nov. 10 near the intersection of Brevard Avenue and Bayshore Boulevard.

She was driving to pick up her son at a ball field when she turned east onto westbound Bayshore and struck another vehicle, police said. The tires of Wardell's white Nissan SUV ended up on the concrete median. No one was hurt.

When police arrived, Wardell told them she was looking for her home but couldn't find it. One officer said he couldn't believe that "because she lives right down the street." A breathalyzer test put her blood-alcohol level at 0.23 percent, nearly three times the level at which Florida law presumes that someone is unable to drive safely.

In a statement read in court Wednesday, Wardell, 37, said: "My conduct that afternoon was selfish, and has impacted many."

She began reading the statement herself, but halfway through the second sentence, tears filled her eyes and she stopped speaking. A woman who said she was "a longtime friend and colleague" of Wardell's picked up where she left off.

In the statement, Wardell said she had immediately checked herself into a residential treatment program "so I could examine what was going on in my life that would lead me to exercise such horrible judgment."

She apologized to her co-workers as well as to members of the judiciary, the police, defense attorneys and "the community as a whole." As a career prosecutor, she said, she of all people should have known better.

"I have been extremely humbled and extremely remorseful," she said in the statement.

Under the terms of her plea agreement, Wardell will serve 12 months probation for driving under the influence and another six months for culpable negligence because her two sons, ages 3 and 6, were in the car when the accident occurred. Both offenses are misdemeanors.

Among those who wrote letters on her behalf were Darryl Rouson, head of the St. Petersburg chapter of the NAACP, and defense lawyer Michael S. Schwartzberg, who praised Wardell's "determination and drive" in his letter to State Attorney Mark Ober.

"We both realize that a felony (charge) would cause Lydia to abruptly end a stellar career for a momentary lapse of judgment," Schwartzberg wrote in a letter dated Jan. 5, the day he died of a heart attack. "Would this be just?"

As part of her sentence, Wardell will do 100 hours of community service, including 16 hours with the Hillsborough Sheriff's Office work detail, wearing an orange vest and picking up trash along the sides of county roads. The trash collection is a standard punishment for drunken driving offenders, said Pam Bondi, spokeswoman for Ober.

Wardell's driver's license will be suspended for six months, and she must attend Alcoholics Anonymous meetings once a week. She is not allowed to drink alcohol during her probation. She must attend DUI school, complete a program administered by the Florida Bar Association for lawyers who commit drug- or alcohol-related offenses and pay a $500 fine and court costs.

Wardell was demoted after her arrest, and has been suspended from her job for 30 days without pay, said Bruce Bartlett, chief assistant for State Attorney McCabe.

In her new position with the consumer fraud unit, she will still work in the courtroom, but will have no contact with DUI cases, Bartlett said. Wardell knows she made a mistake, he said, and she has been punished just like anyone else.

"I can't tell you how remorseful she is," Bartlett said. "She's terribly embarrassed and ashamed. If she could write a letter of apology to the general public, she would. She's just asking for forgiveness."

Vanessa Gezari can be reached at vgezari@sptimes.com or 813 226-3435.

[Last modified February 3, 2005, 01:06:07]


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