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Strawberry's judge holds secret meeting

Legal officials involved in Darryl Strawberry's case refuse to say what they discussed in the circuit judge's office.

By DAVID KARP

© St. Petersburg Times, published April 6, 2001


TAMPA -- The judge overseeing the case against former New York Yankee star Darryl Strawberry held a secret, closed-door meeting Thursday about the baseball slugger's fate.

Circuit Judge Florence Foster met for more than an hour with Strawberry's attorney, probation officers and prosecutors who want Strawberry sent to prison for violating his probation.

Foster could decide Strawberry's punishment next week.

Strawberry, 39, fled a court-ordered drug treatment center last weekend and disappeared on a four-day cocaine binge. Already on probation in previous drug cases, Strawberry turned up Monday night at St. Joseph's Hospital.

He has remained at the hospital while in the custody of the Hillsborough Sheriff's Office.

The court docket of Strawberry's case listed no hearings for Thursday, and Foster's judicial assistant told a reporter Thursday that Strawberry's next court appearance would be next week.

But on Thursday, a reporter for WTVT-Ch. 13 watched as prosecutors, probation officials and Strawberry's lawyer exited Foster's office. All of the officials, who have previously spoken about Strawberry's case, refused to say what they had discussed. The judge did not return a phone call for comment.

"The closure of the meeting leads one to think: What don't they want me to know?" said Barbara Peterson, executive director of the First Amendment Foundation in Tallahassee. "He is a celebrity. So is he getting some kind of special treatment that ordinary crack addicts wouldn't get?"

Before the daily session of Hillsborough's drug court began Thursday morning, Foster and Circuit Judge Donald Evans held an unusual press conference to explain how the special court for drug offenders operates.

A press release said the judges wanted to respond to recent questions about "high-profile cases" in Hillsborough's two drug courts.

Foster would not talk about Strawberry's case during the press conference, but questions kept coming up that happened to fit the circumstances of the case.

For example, a reporter asked whether Foster would consider a defendant's medical condition during sentencing. Yes, Foster said.

Strawberry is being treated for colon cancer.

Foster was asked: How many times could a defendant violate probation before being sent to prison?

"Three or four is the magic number, but it depends on what the violation is," Foster said.

Strawberry has now violated probation four times.

Foster and Evans also spoke at length about how the drug court emphasizes rehabilitation, instead of prison time, to help people cope with addiction. Foster said she finds it effective to give a defendant a suspended sentence followed by drug treatment and probation.

"The most important thing is their attitude. Are they trying?" Foster said.

She cited a line from the recent movie about the international drug trade, Traffic, where actor Michael Douglas, who played the nation's drug czar in the film, asked, "How can you have a war on our families?"

"People are looking for a positive solution to problems that have touched us all," Foster said.

Foster recently has been the subject of controversy over two other cases.

In January, she faced a firestorm for sentencing a small, white defendant to a drug treatment program instead of prison. She said she thought Paul Hamill, 41, would become a target of sexual abuse in prison because of his size and his race.

In February, over the objections of prosecutors, Foster sentenced 22-year-old Marie Manning to a treatment program in Avon Park after Manning pleaded guilty to trafficking in amphetamines.

-- Times staff writer Kathryn Wexler contributed to this report.

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