More than two years ago, Jesse Miller stood outside the Palm Beach County Courthouse, breathed in his first breaths as a free man in more than seven years and remembered as he looked up to the sky that the investigator who arrested him on murder charges told him he’d be behind bars forever.
Fast forward to last September, when Miller, the now 34-year-old who was once convicted but eventually cleared of the 1999 murder of a former co-worker at a West Palm Beach Chick-fil-a, made what was supposed to be a triumphant return to the courthouse after an acquittal that devastated the local prosecutors’ office. He was to be a keynote speaker at a luncheon for local defense attorneys and talk to them about how trial lawyers can better serve their convicted and imprisoned clients.
He came in that morning as he had left the courthouse two years earlier, a free man. Before he could make it to the lunchroom, however, he was back in handcuffs.
Prosecutors and police officers from same agency that once investigated Miller for the murder of Nicholas Megrath say they caught Miller in an undercover investigation selling heroin to an officer.
The new case has brought with it fresh accusations of corruption, which plagued his first prosecution and caused a deep rift among local defense attorneys and Palm Beach County State Attorney Dave Aronberg.
“The legal system must not only refuse to tolerate impropriety, but even the appearance of impropriety as well,” Miller’s attorney, Glenn Mitchell, wrote last month in one of several documents outlining the brewing war over the case, which could go to trial as early as next month.
Mitchell wants Circuit Judge Samantha Shoshberg Feuer to remove Aronberg’s office from the case. Among other things, Mitchell says Adrienne Ellis, the former public defender who represented Miller in his first two trials, is now a chief assistant in Aronberg’s administration and has made derogatory remarks in public about Miller.
Mitchell and Assistant State Attorney Aaron Papero will face off in a hearing before Feuer Thursday.
Miller, meanwhile, is back at the county jail, a place he first entered as a teenager in September 2000, more than a year after the May 1999 murder of Megrath, who was found sitting in a chair, shot once through the head, with duct tape covering his mouth, hands and feet inside the Palm Beach Mall eatery.
Prosecutors’ theory of the case from the start was that Miller was angry at Megrath for telling store managers that he improperly sold a box of chicken nuggets after the restaurant was closed and allegedly pocketed the money — a revelation that got the then 17-year-old Miller booted from a supervisor’s training program at the restaurant and eventually led to his dismissal.
Near the time of his arrest, then West Palm Beach Police Detective Bill Fraser, the lead investigator in the case said Miller’s DNA was a “match” to DNA found on a ski mask left at the murder scene.
After Fraser was forced to admit he was wrong about that less than a year later, prosecutors dropped charges against Miller and set him free.
Fraser is now the chief investigator for the state attorney’s office.
Authorities arrested Miller again in 2007 after they said handwriting samples from a note left at the scene linked him to the case. They promised stronger DNA ties as well.
In Miller’s first trial in 2009, the jury could not reach a verdict. Another jury convicted him five months later and he was sentenced to life in prison, but that conviction was overturned in 2012 after an appellate court ruled a previous judge allowed prosecution witnesses to improperly bolster testimony regarding the handwriting samples.
In that time, prosecutors were also able to score a conviction against another man in Megrath’s death, Otto Wright, who is still serving a life sentence.
Miller’s third trial, in 2014, proved a triumph for Palm Beach County Public Defender Carey Haughwout and Assistant Public Defender Elizabeth Ramsey, who took over for Ellis..
Although the jury ultimately acquitted Miller, Haughwout and Ramsey before the trial had raised concerns over the fact that Ellis at that point was working as a homicide prosecutor as a colleague to the same prosecutors who were seeking a murder conviction against her former client, but Circuit Judge John Kastrenakes back then ruled that the office had been effective in “building a wall” around Ellis to preserve the integrity of the prosecution.
Mitchell in court records over the past couple of months has said that proverbial wall came crumbling down in a quarterly meeting between Aronberg and the Palm Beach County Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers.
In a Sept. 23 letter to Aronberg preceding the meeting, PBACDL President Christine Geraghty expressed the group’s disappointment with the way Aronberg’s office handled the arrest, and told him they would be canceling an annual charity softball game between prosecutors and defenses attorneys because of what they called a “lack of professionalism” on the part of prosecutors.
“While we recognize that we are in no position to dictate how your office and its employees do their jobs in the execution of warrants for a drug offense, your office took advantage of our organization and jeopardized the father that our clients- the people you prosecute- have in the attorneys who defend them,” Geraghty wrote.
At the later meeting with the defense attorneys, according to Mitchell and at least two local defense attorneys who have submitted affidavits to Feuer, Ellis and other leaders in the office joined Aronberg and listened as the defense attorneys shared in person their disgust with how prosecutors handled Miller’s arrest.
Mitchell said instead of talking about the case himself, Aronberg deferred to Ellis, who allegedly characterized Miller as “a dangerous guy” and said he’d “been under investigation for more than two years” — which would mean that investigators had been looking to build a case against him from the moment he was acquitted.
Papero in court records has not confirmed or denied whether Ellis made the statements, but has nonetheless tried to block Mitchell from interviewing her about the allegations.
Mitchell says just the fact that Ellis spoke publicly in such a manner about one of her former clients is an ethical breach, and further claims her words are a sign that she has participated in the investigation and prosecution of her former client — a clear violation.
Papero disagreed, especially on the claims that Ellis had called Miller “dangerous.”
It is a true statement which can be discerned merely from the charges themselves and the facts outlined in the Probable Cause Affidavit,” Papero told Feuer, referencing the September arrest report where an undercover officer claims he mad two buys of 30 and 60 heroin capsules respectively from Miller, whose nickname is “Red.”
Feuer is expected to decide today what questions Mitchell will be able to ask Ellis about the meeting, and could also rule on whether Aronberg’s office will remain on the case.