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Judge Schaeffer's justice swift -- or else

""Sometimes I get cranky . . . I'm just trying to move things along,'' the judge, aware of her demeanor, tells jurors.

By WILLIAM R. LEVESQUE

© St. Petersburg Times, published February 13, 1999


Judge Susan Schaeffer listens to defense lawyers for Henry Lyons and Bernice Edwards at their grand theft and racketeering trial. [Times photo: Cherie Diez]
LARGO -- To practice law in Judge Susan Schaeffer's courtroom is to accept an unnegotiable, unmovable truth.

Time is a commodity not to be squandered.

Schaeffer, 56, now presides over one of the longest-running trials in recent Pinellas County history, the state racketeering trial of Baptist leader Henry J. Lyons and his former aide Bernice Edwards.

The trial is about to enter its fifth week. And for a judge who, in the beginning, promised jurors, "If it goes more than five, I'll shoot myself," the pace at times appears to exasperate her.

For the eight defense attorneys and prosecutors trying the case, the result often has been a lesson in humility. From critiques of their lawyering to reminders to speed it up, everyone knows who's in charge.

There was Assistant State Attorney Frank Piazza one day last week, telling a witness he had one more question, then asking several more. "This is a lot of questions past one," Schaeffer told him.

Piazza asked something else. Wrong move. "Counsel, sit down." He sat.

Defense attorney Jay Hebert stood during the second week of the state's case to explain an objection to Schaeffer. He began telling the judge, "Without playing all our cards . . . "

Looking at the clock, she said, "Well, you better play them pretty soon, counsel."

Later, Schaeffer interrupted Hebert as he questioned a witness. "I don't want this to drag and drag and drag," she said. "This is re-cross, for heaven's sake. We're never going to finish this case."

Trial regulars have gotten to know the judge's manner. Friday, as a witness began to speak despite not having been asked a question, a murmur arose from an audience that knew what was to come.

Schaeffer turned to the witness: "No, here the way we do it is, he asks the question, you answer the question. Understand?"

Understood.

To another witness who kept speaking despite a lawyer's objection, Schaeffer provided a terse explanation of what an objection is: "That means shut up."

As defense attorney Denis de Vlaming questioned a witness, a prosecutor objected. The judge sustained -- but not the prosecution's objection. She sustained her own. De Vlaming looked slightly puzzled. "I don't understand," he told the judge. "You're objecting and sustaining?"


A Ministry in Question: more Times coverage of the Rev. Henry Lyons


Schaeffer grinned. "I thought this objection would be better."

Another day, the judge scolded Assistant State Attorney Bill Loughery, who was trying to explain to her how to interpret a chart listing checks that flowed through a bank account Lyons controlled.

"Please, Mr. Loughery," she said. "Remember, I have an accounting degree. I probably understand what I'm doing better than you."

"I imagine you do," he admitted.

The judge does seem mindful, though, of how her sharp tongue might come across to jurors. She reminded them she doesn't harbor any ill will toward the lawyers she sometimes berates.

"I do my best," she said. "Sometimes I get cranky . . . Just because I'm ornery with them doesn't mean I'm mad at them. I'm just trying to move things along."

Indeed, Schaeffer, chief judge of the Pinellas-Pasco circuit and a one-time finalist for the state Supreme Court, is well-liked and respected among lawyers around the circuit.

And she's just as apt to crack a joke as scold a wayward attorney. In telling jurors they can't discuss details of the case with anyone, she told them they may answer general questions.

One question in particular is safe ground. If someone asks, "Is the judge as mean as I read in the paper," the judge said, jurors are free to answer.

Then Schaeffer added, "Or is she the sweetest little flower you've ever seen?"

 

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