Shahid Freeman loses battle to have conviction for extorting ex-schools chief thrown out

Clarence Shahid Freeman on Monday failed to persuade a Palm Beach County judge to throw out his conviction for extorting former School Superintendent Wayne Gent and, a prosecutor said, the community activist and onetime Democratic operative is unlikely to be released from prison while he launches an appeal.

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, a longtime Democratic Party operative from Boynton Beach area, during his trial in May.

Circuit Judge Glenn Kelley said the arguments Freeman’s attorney made during the hour-long hearing were nearly identical to ones raised in May before a jury took 18 minutes to convict the 65-year-old Boynton Beach area resident of attempting to get Gent to do his bidding in exchange for burying unsubstantiated allegations of sexual misconduct.

“I can’t see why I would essentially reverse myself on any of these rulings,” Kelley said, adding that the 4th District Court of Appeal may have a different view.

Attorney Charles White immediately filed a motion, asking that Freeman be released from prison while he appeals his conviction and three-year prison sentence. Kelley said he would consider the request at a future hearing. But, Assistant State Attorney Marci Rex said, because Freeman has a felony record, he isn’t eligible for release.

In 1974, Freeman was convicted of an armed robbery in Hillsborough County. Rex said Freeman also has misdemeanor convictions for child abuse, marijuana possession and petty theft.

Freeman, wearing a blue prison jumpsuit, looked on impassively while White tried to convince Kelley that prosecutors distorted the facts and the law to persuade the jury to convict Freeman of separate charges of threat of extortion and unlawful compensation for official behavior.

White said the state built its case on what he described as a “salacious letter” in which Gent was accused of “doing the jungle fever” with black subordinates. Prosecutors falsely argued that in a series of conversations recorded by law enforcement, Freeman promised to make the letter disappear if Gent would arrange a $895,000 settlement for demoted schools worker Brantley Sisnett, move the location of a charter school and implement an after-school reading program that had long been Freeman’s pet project, White said.

Freeman never tied the letter to his requests, which were legitimate, White insisted. Further, he said, the letter had already been sent to schools officials and the allegations, which were never substantiated, were being investigated.

“The state chose to create false impressions to the jury … in an effort to show Mr. Freeman was guilty of something when there was really no crime,” White said.

Rex disputed White allegations. From the day Freeman was arrested in 2013, he and prosecutors had vastly different views of what the evidence showed, she said. The jury heard both interpretations and agreed that Freeman had tried to get as much as $1 million from Gent by trumping up allegations of sexual misconduct from an anonymous woman who probably doesn’t exist, she said.

“To allege prosecutorial misconduct is offensive,” Rex said. “I don’t believe that’s what happened in this case.”

 

Clarence Shahid Freeman gets 3 years’ prison in extortion of schools chief

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.
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, the onetime community activist and local Democratic Party operative convicted this spring of trying to extort a former schools chief, was sentenced Tuesday to three years  in prison and two years’ probation.

Circuit Judge Glenn Kelley handed out the punishment for Freeman, 65, at the end of a sentencing hearing in the case surrounding Freeman’s February 2013 quest to get then-superintendent Wayne Gent to settle a grievance with a schools employee and meet two other demands in exchange for making sexual misconduct claims against him disappear.

“I went about it the wrong way, not intending to hurt anybody,” Freeman told Kelley before his sentencing, adding: “I probably didn’t take the right steps tin going about it the way I did, but I pray that everyone involved would forgive me, and I pray that God would forgive me.”

Before he was sentenced, Freeman essentially told Kelley his life’s story, chronicling his rise up from poverty and prison to become a local community leader. He said he approached Gent about an anonymous letter against him because he didn’t want the school district to be blindsided and embarrassed when it was released.

Assistant State Attorney Marci Rex, who asked Kelley to give Freeman five years in prison, said Gent and other high-ranking school officials named in the letter did feel blindsided. Rex also asked Kelley to reject Freeman’s claims of remorse, saying Freeman continued to lie to investigators about the extortion plot even after he was arrested.

A number of Freeman’s supporters, including four of his siblings, his two children and other community leaders, asked Kelley to give Freeman another chance – something they say he’s done for many in the Palm Beach County.

In his May trial,  jurors took less than 20 minutes to convict Freeman of one count each of threat or extortion and unlawful compensation or reward for official behavior. Though the charges were punishable by up to 30 years in prison, the minimum recommended sentence for Freeman under state sentencing guidelines fall just shy of three years.

Much of Freeeman’s four-day trial centered around law enforcement recordings of conversations in February 2013 between Freeman and Gent, who was then the superintendent of Palm Beach County Schools.

Freeman asked Gent to arrange a $895,000 settlement for maligned schools worker Brantley Sisnett, move the location of a charter school and implement an after school reading program that had long been Freeman’s pet project.

In exchange, Freeman promised to make go away an anonymous letter whose writer purported to be a schools employee who accused Gent of sexual misconduct and a series of elicit affairs with black female subordinates.

Kelley heard form a number of Freeman supporters before sentencing him. Among them was Jaime Zapata, a member of the Palm Beach Archdiocese who said Freeman helped him with underprivileged children.

Local Pastor Emmanuel Jenkins and Iona Mosely, city attorney for Fort Pierce, both said he organized efforts to appreciate local law enforcement officers and other “unsung heroes” in the community.

His longtime partner, Connie Barry, said Freeman has had to be put on medication for high blood pressure and diabetes since his incarceration in May, conditions he hadn’t suffered with previously. Barry asked the judge to sentence Freeman to probation and house arrest.

“This has been a devastating experience for him and for me, and I know Shahid will live the rest of his life as a man of good character,” Barry said.

When it was his time to speak, Freeman told the story of his poor upbringing, and how he grew a passion for helping others through education after a chancellor in the New York school district took him in an personally tutored him after he was forced to drop out of school for two years to help support his family.

He also talked about how he was one of the first black students to integrate schools locally and how that led to encounters with racism. In 1974, he was convicted of an armed robbery in Hillsborough County, and said others there helped him get released early in 1979.

Rex said Freeman also has misdemeanor convictions for child abuse, marijuana possession and petit theft.

As far as the incident with Gent, defense attorney Charles White pointed out several times that Freeman, whatever his methods, did what he did to help others.

“It wasn’t sophisticated, it was stupid,” White said, urging Kelley for a sentence below the 34-month minimum recommended sentence. He asked instead for house arrest and asked that community service be a part of Freeman’s sentence as well.

In the end, Kelley rejected Freeman’s request to go belowe the minimum sentence, but said he didn’t think Freeman deserved five years in prison.

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.

———————————————–

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.

——————————————————————

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

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.

 

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.

Shahid Freeman to stand trial on claims he extorted schools chief

Clarence Shahid Freeman
Clarence Shahid Freeman

A delay in the murder solicitation retrial of Dalia Dippolito has pushed up the trial of the man accused of trying to extort a former Palm Beach County Schools chief of nearly $1 million.

It’s been nearly three years since Clarence Shahid Freeman’s arrest on e

Freeman’s trial had been on hold for at least a couple of months, but a decision by Florida’s 4th District court of Appeal to hear a petition in Dippolito’s case postponed her retrial, which was scheduled to begin with jury selection May 23 and expected to last another three weeks once Circuit Judge Glenn Kelley seated the panelists.

Now, with nearly a month of trial time free, Kelley has scheduled Freeman’s trial to begin May 20. Lawyers in the case will argue retrial motions in a hearing scheduled for May 16.

Dalia Dippolito, lawyer to have day of reckoning with judge

Dalia Dippolito testifies in a pretrial hearing Tuesday, February 23, 2016. The 33-year-old Dippolito is facing a May retrial on 2009 charges that she tried to hire a hit man to kill her husband, convicted conman Michael Dippolito. She has pleaded not guilty. Dalia Dippolito is expected to testify that a former lover threatened her with a gun and pressured her to speak to the hit man who was actually an undercover police officer. The case gained national notoriety because "Cops" happened to be filming with the Boynton Beach police. (Lannis Waters / The Palm Beach Post)
Dalia Dippolito testifies in a pretrial hearing Tuesday, February 23, 2016. The 33-year-old Dippolito is facing a May retrial on 2009 charges that she tried to hire a hit man to kill her husband, convicted conman Michael Dippolito. She has pleaded not guilty. (Lannis Waters / The Palm Beach Post)

If all goes well for Dalia Dippolito Tuesday, the former Boynton Beach newlywed once convicted of trying to have her husband killed will escape a return trip to jail and keep the lead defense attorney going into her May retrial.

If not, the 33-year-old could be headed back to jail on accusations that she violated her house arrest by traveling to Miami late last year for an exclusive interview with ABC’s 20/20. And Circuit Judge Glenn Kelley could revoke the special permission he gave California attorney Brian Claypool to work on Dippolito’s case because Claypool told reporters last month that the judge would be giving in to community pressure and sensationalism if he rejected Dippolito’s recent quest to have her case thrown out.

“Mr. Claypool’s comments at the February 23, 2016 press conference violate Bar Rule 4-8.2(a) by making a statement concerning the integrity of the Court that he knows to be false, or that was made with reckless disregard as to its truth or falsity,” Kelley wrote earlier this month in an order for Claypool to appear in court.

Kelley, who ultimately denied Dippolito’s motion to have her charges dismissed, included as a footnote in his memo against Claypool that Dippolito also violated the rules of house arrest when she traveled to the offices of her Miami attorney Mark Eiglarsh for the December interview with ABC.

Prosecutors seized on that and just days later asked Kelley to either raise Dippolito’s bail or send her back to jail. Echoing Kelley’s words, Assistant State Attorney Craig Williams wrote on March 7 that Dippolito was allowed to travel to Miami only for the purposes of meeting with her lawyers to prepare for her retrial – not for an interview.

Williams has asked Kelley to either send Dippolito back to jail or raise her bail.

Kelley has called Dippolito, her legal team and prosecutors in for a 4 p.m. hearing Tuesday to decide both issues in what has become just the latest twist in the case that made international headlines when a YouTube video showing Dippolito crying at what turned out to be a staged crime scene went viral.

Claypool over the weekend announced plans to mount a vigorous defense to keep himself on the case, saying he’d already consulted with local defense attorneys Richard Lubin and Scott Richardson on the matter but will represent himself in an attempt to keep the judge from taking him off the case.

The statements he made were in no way intended to disparage Kelley, Claypool has said, calling the matter “an unfortunate incident.” In paperwork filed Sunday, Claypool quoted other comments he’d made about the judge in the same press conference.

“I think he is a fair judge. I think what he is trying to do is give leeway to both sides and let everything in so he can make an informed decision,” Claypool said a month ago.

The statements came after a hearing that marked Dippolito’s first time ever testifying in court since her 2009 arrest.

Her 2011 trial ended with a conviction after a jury rejected her defense that she and her husband Michael conspired together to hire an undercover Boynton Beach detective posing as a hitman to kill Michael as a ploy for a reality television show.

In the time since an appellate court overturned that conviction and 20-year sentence, Dippolito has said that she was just following the orders of Mohammed Shihadeh, the former lover who turned her in to police and sparked the undercover investigation.

She said she, her husband and Shihadeh were all working together to create an acting showcase that they hoped to parlay into more acting work, but when she tried to back out of the plot Shihadeh threatened to hurt her and her family.

— Daphne Duret, staff writer

 

State: Dalia Dippolito violated bail terms with 20/20 interview

Prosecutor Craig Williams questions Dalia Dippolito as she testifies in a pretrial hearing Tuesday, February 23, 2016.     (Lannis Waters / The Palm Beach Post)
Prosecutor Craig Williams questions Dalia Dippolito as she testifies in a pretrial hearing Tuesday, February 23, 2016. (Lannis Waters / The Palm Beach Post)

What in December was an exclusive interview with a national television news show could send Dalia Dippolito back to jail as she awaits a May retrial on charges that she tried to hire a hitman to kill her husband.

Prosecutors Monday asked Circuit Judge Glenn Kelley to revoke Dippolito’s $25,000 pre-trial bail, saying her Dec. 4 interview with ABC’s 20/20 was a violation of the terms of her release.

After an appeals court overturned Dippolito’s 2011 conviction and 20-year prison sentence on charges she hired a paid killed in an ultimately unsuccessful hit attempt on her then-husband Michael, Kelley allowed her to remain free on the house arrest conditions that were part of her appellate bond.

Under the terms of her release, Assistant State Attorney Craig Williams wrote, Dippolito was only supposed to travel to the offices of her Miami attorney Mark Eiglarsh “to meet with her attorneys to prepare for trial.”

The television interview taped at Eiglarsh’s Miami offices, Williams said, had nothing to do with her preparation for trial.

“The Defendant clearly knew about the filming of the 20/20 television program in advance of one of her four trips to Miami and chose to defy this Honorable Court’s Order and to travel to Miami without your permission or the knowledge of her PBSO Deputy supervising her In House arrest,” Williams wrote.

Kelley on Tuesday had yet to set a hearing on the matter.

But both Eiglarsh and Dippolito’s California attorney Brian Claypool are expected to appear before Kelley later this month for a hearing where the judge could decide to remove Claypool from Dippolito’s case because of comments Claypool made at a press conference after a recent failed motion to get Dippolito’s charges thrown out.

 

Dalia Dippolito lawyers to judge: give us more hearing time

Prosecutor Craig Williams questions Dalia Dippolito as she testifies in a pretrial hearing Tuesday, February 23, 2016. (Lannis Waters / The Palm Beach Post)

Attorneys for the former Boynton Beach woman caught on camera trying to arrange for a hitman to kill her husband are accusing a judge in her case of violating her constitutional rights by not giving them more time to convince him to throw out her case.

Dalia Dippolito’s retrial on murder solicitation charges is expected to begin in May, but that’s only if Circuit Judge Glenn Kelley rejects requests from Dippolito’s lawyers to have her charges thrown out on claims of police misconduct.

Dippolito, who testified in court for the first time since her 2009 arrest in a hearing last week, said the murder-for-hire plot was actually part of an acting project for her, her now ex-husband Michael Dippolito, and her boyfriend-turned-police-informant Mohamed Shihadeh.

On the witness stand, Dippolito said she tried to back out of the allegedly scripted plot, but Shihadeh threatened to harm her if she did, saying that he was being pressured by Boynton Beach Police officials desperate to parlay the plot into a riveting episode of the reality television show COPS.

In paperwork filed with Circuit Judge Glenn Kelley Monday, Dippolito attorney Brian Claypool said he wanted to call two more witnesses to testify to Kelley before the judge makes his decision, adding that it was unfair to Dippolito that Kelley ordered both attorneys to expedite their final arguments at the end of last week’s hearing because of a mandate to shut down local courts at 5:30 p.m. to curtail clerks’ overtime.

“The courthouse regulations should not trump Ms. Dippolito’s constitutional rights,” Claypool wrote.

Dippolito’s lawyers had asked for the extra hearing time last week, but Kelley quickly denied the request.

Among the extra witnesses that Claypool and Dippolito’s legal team would like to question is former Boynton Beach Police Sgt. Paul Sheridan, who Dippolito says tricked her into signing a release to appear on COPS and later falsified a police report about it.

Police officials have said there was an internal investigation on the matter, but have never provided Dippolito’s defense team with any documents related to it. Prosecutors say they don’t know the outcome of the investigation, and current Boynton Beach Police Chief Jeffrey Katz testified last week that he doesn’t know what came of it either.

Dippolito’s attorys want to ask Sheridan about it directly and also present testimony for a law enforcement procedures and policies experts, all in hopes of convincing Kelley that police officials committed misconduct so egregious that Dippolito’s charges should be dismissed.

In 2011, a jury convicted Dippolito of solicitation to commit first degree murder, and Chief Circuit Judge Jeffrey Colbath, calling her “pure evil,” sentenced her to 20 years in prison. An appellate court overturned her conviction after the judges ruled that Colbath should have questioned prospective jurors individually about their exposure to media attention in the case surrounding a YouTube video at a staged crime scene that went viral.