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Maverick judge Allen dies

Last fall, the circuit judge began treatment for an unknown illness. Before that, she rarely missed a day.

By MICHAEL SANDLER

© St. Petersburg Times, published July 31, 2000


TAMPA -- Hillsborough Circuit Judge Diana Allen, a maverick who withstood criticism for decisions such as refusing to send a 13-year-old boy to adult prison, died Saturday night at H. Lee Moffitt Cancer Center. She was 55.

Judge Allen had been on leave from the bench since November, returning briefly to hear a few cases between January and March.

"They were having a tough time diagnosing her," said Chief Judge Dennis Alvarez, a longtime friend and colleague. "She lost a lot of weight and (they) could not come up with a firm diagnosis. They knew something was wrong with the digestive system, but they could not diagnose exactly what it was."

Judge Allen was elected to the circuit bench in 1990, despite admitting she had used cocaine and marijuana. During her decade on the bench, she earned a reputation for being stoic in the face of controversy.

"Basically a person who was no frills," said Alvarez. "She got down to the meat of the issue and dealt with it. She was not afraid of a day's work."

Many people may remember her for deciding not to send Walter "J.J." Revear to adult prison in 1995. The fifth-grader was charged with participating in two armed robberies, one attempted armed robbery and 15 car thefts in a January rampage. The Hillsborough State Attorney's Office took the case to a grand jury. By law that meant Walter, a 12-year-old during the robberies, had to be treated like an adult.

A jury needed just 36 minutes of deliberation to find him guilty of being the getaway driver in one robbery. Shortly after turning 13, Walter pleaded guilty to the remaining charges.

But while many called for a severe sentence, Judge Allen declined to send him to state prison, choosing instead to sentence him to house arrest and probation.

"She made the decision that she thought was consistent with the law and absolute fairness," said Judge Greg Holder, a colleague in Hillsborough Circuit Court. "Many criticized her for her decision, to give J.J. Revear another chance. She based that decision on what she saw in the evidence. That's what we pay judges for."

But her reputation as a maverick sometimes came back to haunt her. In 1997, she shortened the probation imposed on Willie Crain, a child molester later convicted of killing Amanda Brown, a 7-year-old girl. Protesters lined up with signs asking she be impeached.

Last year, out of frustration with her conduct, the State Attorney's Office threatened to move all the prosecutors assigned to Judge Allen's division out of her court and bring in prosecutors from another division.

In November, she went on leave and began treatment for an unknown illness, including visiting the Mayo Clinic. Until then, she rarely had missed a day.

"When she started feeling bad, you could tell," Alvarez said. "She didn't have the spunk in her, that go-go like everybody knew here. For Diana to be away from work, she had not to be not feeling well. . . . She was a tough person."

She earned her reputation prosecuting sex crimes in the state attorney's office at a time when when women slowly gained acceptance from their male counterparts in the 1970s.

"A judge would ask her what the state was seeking and she'd say 20 years," said Mike Benito, a friend a fellow prosecutor back then. "He'd say I can only give him 15. And she'd say, I still want 20."

Benito said she made fast friends and impressed the other lawyers.

"She just fit very well with everybody," Benito said. "She was a lot of fun. She acted like one of the guys. She'd go out, tell stories, had a great sense of humor and was fun to be with."

"She probably had one of the best-run divisions in the criminal courts when she was there," Alvarez said. "She is going to be tough to replace. She was good at what she did."

Judge Allen is survived by her husband, Bill Brown.

Funeral plans weren't available late Sunday.

- Michael Sandler can be reached at (813) 226-3472 or sandler@sptimes.com.

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