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Attorney studying Aisenberg case is a 'professional'

He studies cases carefully, relies on investigative reports and stands up to police in the wrong, say those who know him.

By DAVID KARP

© St. Petersburg Times, published February 24, 2001


TAMPA -- Defense lawyers and prosecutors describe Norman Wolfinger as a by-the-book state attorney who has breezed through re-election campaigns on Florida's east coast for 17 years.

"You never hear any criticism about him here," said Joe Mitchell, a criminal defense lawyer in Melbourne.

Gov. Jeb Bush chose Wolfinger, state attorney for Seminole and Brevard counties, to take on the high-profile investigation into the botched case against Steven and Marlene Aisenberg.

It will be up to Wolfinger to determine whether two Hillsborough sheriff's detectives knowingly lied to a judge and manufactured evidence that became the foundation of a criminal case dismissed this week by a federal judge.

The Aisenbergs' attorneys also want federal prosecutors investigated for charging the Aisenbergs with lying to authorities about the disappearance of their 5-month-old daughter, Sabrina, in November 1997.

The Aisenbergs say someone crept into their home and took the child. But investigators suspected the couple had something to do with the disappearance and bugged their home. Based on surveillance tapes, federal prosecutors persuaded a grand jury to indict the couple.

The indictment was dismissed Thursday, after a federal magistrate earlier had said the tapes were mostly inaudible and did not contain the incriminating statements detectives and prosecutors had claimed.

Wolfinger, 55, does not cut a flashy image. He tends to study cases carefully and rely on investigative reports, those familiar with him said Friday.

He has taken a strong stand on crimes against children. He founded the Children's Advocacy Center of Brevard County and serves other non-profit groups that help troubled kids.

Although he is a good friend to local law enforcement agencies, he will not ignore crimes committed by officers, said criminal defense lawyers who have tangled with his office.

"He will do a professional job, and I don't say that about all prosecutors," said Daniel Ciener, a defense lawyer in Merritt Island. "He has the will to do it if the case is there. But he doesn't go on witch hunts."

As a young public defender, Wolfinger represented Juan Ramos, whose murder conviction was overturned by the Florida Supreme Court in 1986 after he had spent four years on death row.

Wolfinger called it "the weakest murder case I've ever seen" and blamed the prosecution of Ramos, a Cuban, on racism.

As a prosecutor, Wolfinger led the successful prosecution of William Cruse, who methodically opened fire on about 30 people at a Palm Bay shopping center in 1987, killing six. Cruse was sent to death row.

Wolfinger withheld public records about the case from the press, saying he didn't want the release to affect Cruse's trial. In 1990, he lobbied for legislation to prevent the press from seeing investigative files. He said the bill, which failed, would help prosecutors do their jobs more effectively.

Not every defense attorney is convinced Wolfinger will stand up to law enforcement agencies when they step over the line.

In 1990, Wolfinger was asked to investigate the Citrus County Sheriff's Office after deputies placed a phone trace on the office telephone of Inverness lawyer Charles Vaughn, who had represented a client who had escaped from the county jail.

Sheriff's officials claimed they had called the telephone company to see if it was possible to put a "trap and trace" device on Vaughn's phone. Phone company officials said they thought the Sheriff's Office had obtained Vaughn's permission for the bug.

But sheriff's officials had not gotten permission or authorization from a court.

They claimed to have never asked the phone company to place the bug and that it was placed by the phone company because of a misunderstanding.

Wolfinger's chief deputy, Robert Wayne Holmes, who will assist in the Aisenberg case, concluded that Wolfinger could not bring a charge against Citrus sheriff's officials based on a "misunderstanding."

The lawyer thinks Wolfinger should have charged the officers.

"He whitewashed it," Vaughn said.

- David Karp can be reached at (813) 226-3376 or karp@sptimes.com.

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Wolfinger prepares investigation (February 23, 2001)

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