Victor Diaz wins new trial, gets new judge in Three Amigos case

Circuit Judge Krista Marx sentences Victor Salastier Diaz to life in prison Tuesday, January 26, 2016, consecutive to the 53 years he's already serving for an armed robbery at the Three Amigos convenience/check cashing store. He was convicted of murder, after one of the robbers shot 70-year-old motorist Samuel Salomon in a deadly car chase following the robbery. (Lannis Waters / The Palm Beach Post)
Circuit Judge Krista Marx sentences Victor Salastier Diaz to life in prison Tuesday, January 26, 2016, consecutive to the 53 years he’s already serving for an armed robbery at the Three Amigos convenience/check cashing store. (Lannis Waters / The Palm Beach Post)

Misconduct from a now-jailed juror who convicted him of murder earlier this year has earned Victor Salastier Diaz a new murder trial in a case where he is accused of participating in a robbery and riding in a getaway car when one of his accomplices shot and killed a motorist.

According to court records, Circuit Judge Krista Marx on Friday granted Diaz’s request for a new trial based on allegations of juror misconduct from Philip Elliott, who in a series of private messages with another juror claimed he knew both Marx and her husband personally and because of that felt Marx “went easy” on him when investigating misconduct claims after Diaz January trial.

Assistant Public Defender Joseph Walsh asked for a new trial on May 2 and also asked Marx to remove herself from the case.

Marx agreed to give Diaz a new trial and step aside Friday, the day after a contempt of court hearing where she sent Elliott to jail for eight days after giving him a scathing lecture.

Among her findings, Marx ruled that Elliott committed jurors misconduct by looking up words related to the case despite her instructions against it and encouraged fellow juror, Samantha Scalpi, to lie to the court in jurors interviews scheduled shortly after Scapli raised misconduct allegations surrounding the panel’s January verdict.

“You maligned the dignity of this court,” Marx said Thursday before ordering deputies to handcuff Elliott and take him to jail. “You showed a complete and total disregard for the judicial system.”

Elliott told Marx that he had a crush on Scalpi, was trying to get her to date him and was possibly intoxicated when writing parts of a series of Facebook messages between the two that ultimately became his undoing when Scalpi turned them over to lawyers in the case.

Friday’s ruling marks the second time in three years that a defendant in a high-profile Palm Beach County case has won a new trial based on juror misdeeds.

Chief Circuit Judge Jeffrey Colbath in 2013 overturned a DUI manslaughter conviction for Wellington polo club founder John Goodman on the same day he initiated criminal contempt proceedings against Dennis DeMartin, the juror he eventually ordered to jail for five months and 29 days for a series of missteps DeMartin unwittingly revealed in a pair of self-published books after the trial.

DeMartin was released on an appellate bond after serving 37 days of his sentence. Florida’s 4th District Court of Appeal later rejected his quest to have his sentence thrown out, but Colbath on Friday will consider a request to reduce his sentence.

As for Diaz, no new hearings had been set as of early Monday ahead of what will be his third trial in the case. He is one of seven men accused in the death of Samuel Salomon, who was shot and killed when one of the Three Amigos robbers fired at the grocery store owner during a chase.

Four others are serving life sentences and another, who testified against them, is serving an 18-year sentence. One who was arrested in Spain last year is awaiting trial.

Diaz in 2010 was convicted of armed robbery and burglary charges. Jurors were unable to reach a unanimous verdict on the murder charge, setting the stage for January’s trial.

 

VERDICT: Clarence Shahid Freeman GUILTY in extortion case

Openings in the extortion trial of Clarence Shahid Freeman, a longtime Democratic Party operative from Boynton Beach area, who is charged with trying to use an anonymous letter alleging sexual relations with school employees to blackmail then Schools Superintendent Wayne Gent for about $1 million for various people and programs.
Clarence Shahid Freeman

UPDATE 4:07 p.m.: After less than 20 minutes of deliberation, a jury on Friday decided to convict Clarence Shahid Freeman of extortion and unlawful compensation or reward for official behavior.

Freeman, standing in the courtroom, exhaled deeply as the verdicts were read. The decision means he faces up to 30 years in prison when he is sentenced July 12.

Assistant State Attorney Marci Rex told Circuit Judge Glenn Kelley that Freeman’s minimum recommended sentence under the guidelines is 34 months in prison.

Defense attorney Charles White said he will need at least two hours at sentencing to present witnesses who will speak about the good Freeman has done for the community. He said he will ask the judge to give him a sentence lower than the 34 months.

White tried unsuccessfully to get Kelley to allow Freeman to stay out of jail until his sentencing. Because the jury convicted him of two second-degree felonies, Kelley ordered him taken into custody immediately.

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UPDATE 3:35 p.m.: Jurors are now deliberating Clarence Shahid Freeman’s case.

For a recap of closing arguments from our live blog, go to http://www.palmbeachpost.com/freemantrial

The final jury is three men and three women.

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ORIGINAL POST: Lawyers in Clarence Shahid Freeman’s extortion trial are now delivering their closing arguments to jurors in the case surrounding claims the community activist used an anonymous letter to try to get a former superintendent to make concessions worth nearly $1 million.

It’s a much earlier than expected end to the trial that attorneys in the case once expected to last 10 days.

If a jury convicts him, Freeman faces up to 30 years in prison on one count each of extortion and threats and unlawful compensation or reward for official behavior.

According to prosecutors, who presented hours of recorded conversations between Freeman and former Palm Beach County Schools Superintendent Wayne Gent, Freeman used an anonymous letter accusing Gent of sexual misconduct with subordinates to convince him to meet several demands, including:

  • A $895,000 payout for Brantley Sisnett, a schools employee cleared by a jury of accusations he stole school money
  • The move of a charter school to another location
  • Approving the use of Freeman’s pet project, a Saturday morning reading program, at local schools

In exchanged, Freeman guaranteed to make the sexual misconduct allegations “go away.”

Defense in Shahid Freeman extortion trial calls school officials

MBOYNTON BEACH-050703 NPB F[2]Schools officials, past and present, have made up all of Clarence “Shahid” Freeman’s defense so far Thursday in a trial where he is accused of trying to extort former Palm Beach County Schools Chief Wayne Gent of nearly $1 million to keep quiet an anonymous letter full of sexual misconduct claims against him.

Freeman, a Democratic Party operative and community leader at the time of the alleged 2013 extortion, faces up to 30 years in prison if jurors convict him of one count each of extortion or threats and unlawful compensation or reward for official behavior.

Prosecutors rested their case earlier than expected Wednesday after just two days of testimony.

Defense Attorney Charles White on Thursday morning called to the witness stand former schools Superintendent Art Johnson and current school board member Marcia Andrews. After the lunch break, jurors are expected to hear from several more defense witnesses, including Brantley Sisnett, the schools employee for which Freeman asked Gent for a $895,000 settlement in exchange for making the sexual misconduct claims go away. Part of the money, Freeman later told Gent, was to go to Gent’s accuser.

Neither investigators nor prosecutors have ever been able to track down the identity of the alleged accuser, whose name Freeman has never revealed.

In a series of recorded conversations, Freeman also asked Gent to move a charter school and implement a reading program Freeman developed in exchange for making the allegations go away.

Follow the Palm Beach Post’s live coverage of the trial at http://www.palmbeachpost.com/freemantrial

PBC juror jailed for eight days for misconduct in Three Amigos trial

A Palm Beach County juror who in January helped convict a man in the 2007 death of a 70-year-old motorist who was shot after a robbery of the Three Amigos market was sent to jail for eight days on Thursday for jury misconduct.

Circuit Judge Krista Marx sentences Victor Salastier Diaz to life in prison Tuesday, January 26, 2016, consecutive to the 53 years he's already serving for an armed robbery at the Three Amigos convenience/check cashing store. He was convicted of murder, after one of the robbers shot 70-year-old motorist Samuel Salomon in a deadly car chase following the robbery. (Lannis Waters / The Palm Beach Post)
Circuit Judge Krista Marx sentences Victor Salastier Diaz to life in prison in January. (Lannis Waters / The Palm Beach Post)

In a stern rebuke after a two-hour hearing, Palm Beach County Circuit Judge Krista Marx found that Philip Elliott violated jury rules by looking up the definition of words during the trial of Victor Salastier Diaz and then encouraging another juror to lie that other violations had occurred in hopes of overturning the verdict.

“You maligned the dignity of this court,” Marx said before ordering deputies to handcuff Elliott, 45, and take him to jail. “You showed a complete and total disregard for the judicial system.”

Elliott claimed he was trying to woo fellow juror  Samantha Scalpi in a series of Facebook messages that were sent after the trial. “I had a crush on Samantha,” he said, adding that he may have been intoxicated when some of them were sent. “I said a lot of B.S. stuff.”

Scalpi was distraught after the verdict, indicating she had been bullied by other jurors to convict. “I said whatever she wanted to hear,” Elliott said.

Marx said she didn’t care about Elliott’s motives. Encouraging Scalpi to claim that jurors discussed the case during the trial, to say Elliott was friends with Marx’s husband, fellow Judge Joseph Marx, and to say that jurors had looked up information about Diaz’s co-defendants, was despicable, she said. She cleared Elliott, who works at a Palm Beach bike shop, of actually doing any of those things or of knowing her husband other than to sell a bike to him four years ago. But, she said suggesting that Scalpi falsely claim that such breaches had occurred was a serious violation of jury conduct.

Further, she said, Elliott admitted he looked up the meaning of the phrase “immediate scene,” during the trial despite repeatedly being told that jurors were barred from doing any independent research.

Elliott claimed he is dyslexic and simply wanted to understand the terms so he could weigh the evidence against Diaz.

“I don’t know if you know what the word truth means,” Marx said. “Perhaps you should look that up in your dictionary.”

Attorney Adam Farkas, who represented Elliott, said he could appeal Marx’s decision. But, he said, time is too short. By the time an appeal could be heard, Elliott would be out of jail.

Attorney Joseph Walsh, who represents Diaz, said he is weighing whether to again ask Marx to throw out the verdict. Marx has already rejected one request that the verdict be thrown out due to jury misconduct.

In his Diaz’s first trial in 2010, the jury convicted him of armed robbery and burglary charges but acquitted him of attempted murder charges and was unable to reach a unanimous verdict on the murder charge, splitting 7-5 in favor of acquittal. He was retried and convicted of murder in January and sentenced to life in prison.
Diaz is one of seven men accused in the 2007 death of Samuel Salomon, a retired baker was shot and killed when one of the Three Amigos robbers tried to shoot at the suburban Boynton Beach store owner after he got into his car and chased the robbers. Salomon, of suburban Delray Beach, was out shopping with his wife when he was hit by a stray bullet.

Check back for further updates.

John Goodman loses legal battle to toss blood-alcohol test in fatal crash

Wellington polo mogul John Goodman won’t be able to throw out his DUI manslaughter conviction for the 2010 death of Scott Wilson by arguing that shoddy techniques falsely elevated his blood-alcohol level, an appeals court ruled on Wednesday.

ID Photo
John Goodman (Florida Department of Corrections)

In a seven-page opinion, the 4th District Court of Appeal rejected Goodman’s claims that the blood collection method was flawed. They noted that both a state administrative law judge and Circuit Judge Jeffrey Colbath decided that rules were in place to ensure the accuracy of blood tests.

“The rules at issue, when combined with basic laboratory practices, are sufficient to protect the safety and interests of the court system and defendants alike,” Judge Alan Forst wrote for the three-judge panel.

Had the appeals court ruled that the scientifically complex rules were inadequate, Goodman could have used that to challenge his 2014 conviction and 16-year prison sentence. He could have argued that jurors should haven’t been told that his blood-alcohol level was nearly twice the level at which Florida drivers are considered impaired.

Instead, Goodman will have to hope that other issues he has raised in a separate appeal will win him yet another trial. His first conviction was thrown out due to jury misconduct. A second jury reached an identical conclusion about his role in the late night crash that killed the 23-year-old recent engineering school graduate.

 

PBSO agrees to pay for not turning over data in suit over Seth Adams’ death

The Palm Beach County Sheriff’s Office has agreed to pay $15,000 for not immediately turning over GPS data to show where various officers were when Loxahatchee Groves resident Seth Adams was shot dead by Sgt. Michael Custer four years ago.

Seth Adams, 24, in Loxahatchee Groves. Fatal. Photograph dated May 1, 2012. He was killed by a Palm Beach County Sheriff's Office deputy outside his home on May 17, 2012.
Seth Adams, 24, was fatally shot by a Palm Beach County Sheriff’s Office deputy outside his home on May 17, 2012.

“I thought $15,000 was very reasonable,” said attorney Wallace McCall, who represents Adams’ family in a civil lawsuit against Custer and the sheriff’s office. “We spent a lot of time proving the GPS existed and trying to get them to turn it over.”

The failure of the agency to turn over the GPS data is one of several instances where the agency has failed to turn over key evidence, McCall said.

U.S. District Judge Daniel Hurley is still deciding whether to sanction the agency for not preserving the cell phone Custer was using on May 17, 2012 when  he shot the unarmed 24-year-old as Adams was returning to his family’s garden center on A Road, where he also lived.

After a hearing in March, Hurley said he was torn between whether the agency acted in bad faith or was “extraordinarily negligent” when it lost the phone, knowing it had to be preserved. He said he needed time to do additional research.

While the agency also destroyed Custer’s laptop, Hurley ruled that it was not done intentionally. Rather, he said, it was destroyed because the officer was in line for a new computer. Old laptops are routinely thrown out, sheriff’s officials testified.

Hurley said McCall was clearly entitled to the GPS data to show the locations of other officers who were working with Custer the night Adams was shot. After McCall argued that the agency had repeatedly denied the records existed when it was clear they did, Hurley agreed McCall should be paid for the extra time he spent trying to get them.

In court papers, the sheriff’s office and McCall agreed to the $15,000 payment.

 

 

Three Amigos juror arraigned on contempt charges

Victor Diaz
Victor Diaz

A former juror in Victor Salastier Diaz’s murder trial pleaded not guilty early Wednesday to contempt of court charges stemming from alleged conduct that could win Diaz a new trial in the death of a motorist.

Philip Eliot also received legal help to fight the charges against him, as Circuit judge Krista Marx appointed a defense attorney to represent him in the case sparked by Facebook messages between Eliot and another juror after the trial.

In them, Eliot, who works at a bike shop on Palm Beach, tells Samantha Scalpi, a juror who previously made claims she was bullied, that the judge and her husband, Circuit Judge Joseph Marx, are customers. Eliot never mentioned the connection before he was selected as a juror or at any point during the trial.

Asked how well he knew the Marxes, Eliot replied: “Well enough to call her husband immediately after the trial.”

Eliot told Scalpi in the messages that because of this relationship, he believed Marx “went soft” on him when she interviewed him after the trial on allegations that he looked up words pertaining to the case during the jury’s deliberations.

The next hearing in Eliot’s case is May 26. If convicted, he could face up to five months and 29 days in jail.

Eliot and other jurors in Janury convicted Diaz of murder in the death of Samuel Salomon, a 70-year-old retired Kosher baker who was driving home from Hanukah shopping when he got caught in the crossfire of a group of robbers that had just fled the Three Amigos Grocery and check cashing store in Boynton Beach.

One of the assailants was trying to shoot at store owner Sian Kiat Koh, who had got into his car and chased the robbers in hopes of recovering the money they stole.

Based on the jury’s conviction, Marx sentenced Diaz to life in prison. His attorney, Assistant Public Defender Joseph Walsh, has now asked for a new trial based on Eliot’s claims.

Alleged extortionist Shahid Freeman wants prosecutor off his case

MBOYNTON BEACH-050703 NPB F[2]A hearing will continue Wednesday in the case of a self-proclaimed community activist accused of trying to extort a former Palm Beach County schools chief.

Jury selection is expected for begin Friday in Clarence Shahid Freeman’s case, but that will only happen if Circuit Judge Glenn Kelley rejects Freeman’s quest to get the Palm Beach County State Attorney’s office disqualified from the case.

Freeman says that the county’s top prosecutor, Dave Aronberg, has pursued the case against him for political reasons tied to a prior Florida Bar complaint filed against him in a case where he worked with a group of Brazilian immigrants.

After that complaint was dismissed, defense attorney Charles White said, Freeman went to then-Palm Beach County Schools Superintendent Wayne Gent and showed him an anonymous letter whose writer accused Gent of having sexual liasons with subordinates at the school district.

Freeman allegedly told Gent he would keep the letter private if Gent would push a settlement of a dispute with a schools employee and use $895,000 in district dollar for a reading program Freeman created.

“There were ulterior motives for this prosecution,” White told Kelley Wednesday. “I believe investigating Mr. Freeman was optional…there were a number of ways that they could handle it, but they chose quite frankly and unprecedented step.”

That step, White said, was for investigators to outfit Gent with a recording device, which prosecutors say caught the entire alleged crime on audio.

 

Corey Jones family to hold rally at burial site

Corey Jones, a 31-year-old drummer and property manager, was shot to death Oct. 18.
Corey Jones, a 31-year-old drummer and property manager, was shot to death Oct. 18.

The family of Corey Jones, the 31-year-old drummer and stranded motorist fatally shot by a police officer last year, will mark the seven-month anniversary of his death Wednesday with a rally at his burial site.

The rally will begin at 5:30 p.m. Wednesday at the Boynton Beach Mausoleum, 1611 S. Seacrest Blvd. Jones family attorney Kweku Darfoor last week said the gathering will offer a chance for Jones’ cousins and other younger members of his family to publicly express their grief.

Last month, Palm Beach County State Attorney Dave Aronberg announced plans to allow a grand jury to decide whether Raja should face criminal charges – a move that dismayed family members and community leaders who had hoped Aronberg would skip that process and use his power to charge Raja directly.

Palm Beach Gardens police officer Nouman Raja shot and killed Corey Jones, 31, on an Interstate 95 off ramp at PGA Boulevard in Palm Beach Gardens on Oct. 18, 2015.
Palm Beach Gardens police officer Nouman Raja shot and killed Corey Jones, 31, on an Interstate 95 off ramp at PGA Boulevard in Palm Beach Gardens on Oct. 18, 2015.

Jones, 31, was on his way home from a gig on Oct. 18 when his car broke down on Interstate 95 at the southbound PGA Boulevard exit. Palm Beach Gardens Police Officer Nouman Raja, who was working a burglary prevention detail in plainclothes, drove up on Jones in an unmarked van and eventually shot him three times.

Raja, who was on probation with the department and has since been fired, said he shot Jones because he believed he was coming towards him with a gun.

Accused extortionist Shahid Freeman wants prosecutor off his case

MBOYNTON BEACH-050703 NPB F[2]The man accused of trying to extort nearly $1 million from former Palm Beach County schools chief Wayne Gent says he believes he believes he’s the victim of a political prosecution and wants the local State Attorney’s office disqualified from his case.

Jury selection is expected to begin Friday in the trial for Clarence Shahid Freeman, who is accused of using an anonymous letter accusing Gent of having sexual liasons with school employees to try to get Gent to to allocate more than $895,000 in school dollars to Freeman’s after-school reading program.

But on Monday, defense attorney Charles White filed a request for Circuit Judge Glenn Kelley to force Palm Beach County State Attorney Dave Aronberg’s office to step down from the case.

Freeman said that although he helped Aronberg get elected nearly four years ago, other political motivations – specifically a high-ranking Palm Beach County Sheriff’s official’s dislike of Freeman – prompted the investigation where Freeman was heard in recorded audio brokering a deal to hand over the letter to Gent.

In a hearing on the matter Monday, Assistant State Attorney Marci Rex told Kelley she wanted to make it clear that prosecutors didn’t initiate any investigation against Freeman but merely responded to a complaint from a school board official.

The case is three years old and it’s not like Mr. Aronberg just got elected. It’s disingenuous to file it now,” Rex said.

Monday’s pretrial hearing, which will continue Wednesday, will also offer a glimpse into Freeman’s defense strategy. White told Kelley Monday that he would argue that Freeman’s intent was not to blackmail Gent, but to actually bring to public view the alleged wrongdoings.

“He was going to expose it because that’s just the kind of guy he is,” White said.

Kelley will finish hearing arguments on several pretrial motions in the case Wednesday.