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Defender's office must pay $17,000

A jury awards the sum to a Marion County man who was wrongly jailed for 15 days although he had a paper that ensured his freedom.

By LARRY DOUGHERTY

© St. Petersburg Times, published April 14, 2000


TAMPA -- A Marion County man was awarded $17,000 Thursday for a two-week jail stay caused by the errors of the Hillsborough Public Defender's Office.

John Rowell spent 15 days behind bars in 1995 despite having a piece of paper that freed him as soon as a judge saw it. Rowell, 55, blamed the Public Defender's Office for failing to have lawyers meet with him sooner to secure his release.

"It's an inhumane feeling," Rowell said about his time in jail. "You feel like a caged dog and the master's left. There was no quiet. I was in there with a child molester. It was disgusting."

Juror Scott Boehling said the award, which works out to about $1,100 a day in jail, "sends a message to the public defender that just because you aren't J.R. Ewing, and you get a public defender, you're still important."

John Skye, a member of Hillsborough Public Defender Julie Holt's staff, sat in for her at the defense table. He declined to comment on the verdict afterward. Holt's office, the sole defendant in the case, had earlier offered Rowell $1,000 to settle his claim of legal malpractice, according to Rowell's attorney, Jim Holliday.

Rowell was no stranger to life behind bars, having served a sentence for a robbery conviction in Alachua County in 1967. In 1975, then-Gov. Reubin Askew signed an order restoring Rowell's civil rights, including his right to possess a firearm.

Rowell also was arrested in 1992 for aggravated battery with great bodily harm and aggravated assault, Hillsborough jail records show. Court records weren't available to show the resolution of those charges late Thursday. On July 6, 1995, Rowell was arrested by the Hillsborough Sheriff's Office, this time for being a felon in possession of a firearm. He had sold a weapon at a pawn shop.

Rowell had a copy of the governor's order with him, and at his initial appearance the next day he displayed it. There were two public defenders working that day, Dylan Snyder and Kathleen Ford. Neither now works for the public defender's office. Neither could be reached for comment late Thursday.

The judge, who presided via a video hookup, scheduled an emergency hearing to review the paper in person. But Rowell's public defenders never came to get him. He did not see them until July 18, and he was not set free until July 20, 1995.

"He waited in jail for two weeks and after a five-minute hearing he was released," Holliday said. "Our fathers shed blood for liberty, and this jury realized that liberty has a value."

In its defense, the Public Defender's Office blamed court clerks for mishandling paperwork, Holliday said.

Rowell, a resident of Oklawaha, is disabled now with Parkinson's disease and cirrhosis, but he formerly worked at a wastewater plant and as a medical technician. After determining that Holt's office had been negligent, the jury decided to award Rowell $504 in lost wages. For mental suffering and embarrassment, jurors settled on a figure of $16,500, after individual jurors suggested both higher and lower numbers.

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