On Monday, former John Goodman juror Dennis DeMartin will come face to face, perhaps for the last time, with the man who holds DeMartin’s freedom in his hands.
The final hearing in DeMartin’s contempt of court case will pit Palm Beach County’s most infamous juror with a man that is now the area’s most powerful judge. And based on Chief Circuit Judge Jeffrey Colbath’s track record as well as recent fireworks in the case, DeMartin appears unlikely to escape the showdown without looking at time behind bars.
“My crystal ball says the court will convict and incarcerate Mr. DeMartin,” Robert Gershman, who represented the 70-year-old pro bono along with Joseph Walsh, said Friday after the last preliminary hearing in the case.
Colbath’s decision in May to charge DeMartin, a Delray Beach retiree, with contempt for derailing Goodman’s first DUI manslaughter trial added one more layer of controversy — and frustration — to the ongoing courtroom drama surrounding the death of 23-year-old Scott Wilson.
DeMartin revealed in the third of three books he’s published since Goodman’s high-profile March 2012 trial that his ex-wife had once been arrested for DUI — a fact he’d failed to disclose to the court when he was a prospective juror. Colbath used that as the basis for overturning Goodman’s conviction and 16-year prison sentence, and also for DeMartin’s contempt charges.
Aside from Goodman’s upcoming retrial, DeMartin’s case is the only high-profile matter the judge has kept since he became the 15th Circuit’s chief judge, an administrative role he took over from Circuit Judge Peter Blanc this summer.
And if the tension in the DeMartin case wasn’t apparent before, a preliminary hearing began Friday with Colbath calling Gershman and Walsh unprofessional for throwing out a last-minute motion to have DeMartin declared incompetent.
“You filed the motion to have me recused from the case pretty quickly, so why did this one take so long?” Colbath asked, referencing a filing a week earlier in which the attorneys accused Colbath of having a personal bias against DeMartin.
Gershman immediately renewed his motion to have Colbath off the case, a request Colbath made the attorney put in writing before he unceremoniously denied it, just as he had their first request.
Exchanges like these have given the public a glimpse of a much tougher side of the judge who in the past has handled highly publicized cases with a mostly affable exterior.
Colbath is a second generation jurist, the son of former Palm Beach County Chief Circuit Judge Walter Colbath. The younger Colbath was appointed to the county court bench in 1992, where he started a tradition of playing volleyball at the Palm Beach County Jail on Friday afternoons with the prosecutors and public defenders who litigated cases before him.
‘Word of the day’
On the circuit court bench, Colbath often peppered morning docket calls with a daily “word of the day” – a tradition he didn’t halt when he presided over trials like Goodman’s and the murder solicitation trial for the infamous Boynton Beach newlywed Dalia Dippolito.
In an interview last year, Colbath said he started it to break the monotony of what was often mundane court hearings, and also to offer a temporary distraction in tense cases.
“I was surprised at how I’d be presiding over murder trials, and the defendant would stop and ask: ‘Hey judge, what’s the word of the day?’ ” Colbath said at the time.
Until the DeMartin case, Colbath’s tough words in cases usually came at the very end. In Dippolito’s case, for example, he called her “pure evil” only in the moments before he sentenced her to 20 years in prison for trying to hire a hitman to kill her husband.
And though he at times appeared to handle DeMartin gently in the three post-trial hearings exploring allegations of misconduct in Goodman’s case, his thoughts on the juror’s behavior sprang up from the pages of the ruling overturning Goodman’s conviction based on DeMartin’s actions.
Colbath also added to DeMartin’s charges a drinking experiment the retired accountant conducted the night before he and five others convicted Goodman — an experiment he detailed in the pages of his self-published juror tell-all, Believing the Truth. Though Colbath had expressly forbidden jurors to conduct their own experiments in the case, DeMartin said he drank three vodka and tonics within the span of 90 minutes to see if Goodman would have been impaired based on testimony in the case.
Goodman’s attorneys had made the drinking experiment their first avenue of appeal, but Colbath — who did say he felt it was misconduct — appeared to forgive the misstep by denying Goodman a new trial based on the experiment alone.
Bumbling may not save juror
From the beginning, local attorneys speculating on the case have said that the possibility of Colbath sending the elderly juror to jail is real, despite his often appearing hapless while answering questions in his post-Goodman trial hearings.
Last week, well-known defense attorney Michael Salnick, who represented Dippolito through her trial, said if nothing else, Colbath’s sentence will reflect the seriousness of the charges against DeMartin, which Salnick called a slap in the face to the criminal justice system.
“Based on what he allegedly did, he could have robbed this man (Goodman) of 16 years of his freedom, all based on his misconduct,” Salnick said. “I think the judge is going to look at that, and if he’s found guilty, the judge is going to sentence him based on the facts.”
Judges in Palm Beach County have rarely charged people with criminal contempt of court charges. According to a Palm Beach Post analysis of local criminal court cases since 2006, only 40 people have been prosecuted with the same contempt charge DeMartin now faces. Most of those cases were handled by other judges, but a glimpse into Colbath’s record with criminal contempt comes in a 2004 case.
That was the year Colbath inherited from another judge the contempt case against Jay Gordon, a man who found himself in trouble with the court for allegedly violating an injunction in a divorce proceeding.
According to court records in the case, Gordon at one point had asked to have the case moved out of Palm Beach County, claiming then-newly elected Circuit Judge Martin Colin, once a main witness in his divorce case, was his ex-wife’s “boyfriend.”
After a hearing in late 2004, Colbath found Gordon guilty of contempt. But he didn’t sentence him right away. Instead, Colbath sent him to jail for a week until he could decide. When Gordon came back before him a week later, Colbath decided to release him but put off his sentencing again for another two months.
In December of that year, he sentenced Gordon to a year of probation, which included a 30-day jail sentence to be served on weekends. An appellate court later overturned Gordon’s conviction, saying that Colbath should not have conducted the hearing or sentencing without appointing a public defender to represent him.
Gordon was decades younger than DeMartin, however, whose lawyers say he will temporarily lose certain Social Security benefits if Colbath decides to jail him for more than 30 days.
Further complicating matters, Gershman and Walsh last week filed a notice with Colbath asking the judge to allow them to get doctors to test whether DeMartin was mentally competent to assist them with his defense. Walsh, after Friday’s hearing, hinted that he and Gershman would be filing more details about DeMartin’s condition ahead of Monday’s hearing.
But even before last week, Walsh said in an interview, the whole ordeal was having an adverse effect on DeMartin’s health — manifesting in a flare-up of heart ailments, which DeMartin has battled for years.
Health issues aside, DeMartin – who also complains of memory loss – has not been a sympathetic figure to many in the community, including several members of the public who have written letters to Colbath asking him not to show leniency.
“DeMartin should pay for his exploitation of our system, no matter his age,” Frank Simmons, one of DeMartin’s fellow Delray Beachers, said in a handwritten note to Colbath in June.
Data Interactive Editor Niels Heimeriks and Staff writer Fedor Zarkhin contributed to this story.
LIVE COVERAGE ONLINE
Palm Beach Post court reporters Daphne Duret and Jane Musgrave will cover the final contempt of court hearing live for juror Dennis DeMartin at 1 p.m. Monday. Follow them via Twitter, and ask questions in a live chat at palmbeachpost.com.