Judge Evans’ retirement hastened by quip seen as racially insensitive

Last week’s abrupt departure of Palm Beach County Judge Peter Evans was prompted after the 30-year jurist used a racially insensitive word to describe a black defense attorney.

Evans’ off-handed remark, calling Assistant Public Defender Sheldon Graves “a gorilla,” came during early-morning plea hearings at the West County Courthouse in Belle Glade. Until his retirement on Aug. 17, the 67-year-old Evans had spent the last several years as the lone judge assigned to the courthouse in the predominantly black community.

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The word was uttered so quickly and innocuously that Graves didn’t even hear it, said Public Defender Carey Haughwout. Graves only learned about it after an unidentified person reported Evans’ transgression to Chief Circuit Judge Krista Marx.

“Whether or not it hurts the person it’s directed to is not the issue,” Haughwout said. “It harms everyone who hears it and it harms the reputation of our courts.”

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She applauded Marx for acting swiftly. Marx said she contacted Evans immediately after she listened to the tape of the six-minute hearing where Evans, almost jokingly, refers to Graves as “the other gorilla defense counsel.”

Evans was contrite, Marx said. “He apologized profusely and he immediately retired,” she said. “We both recognized this is a career-ender.”

While he planned to retire when his seventh term ended in January, he agreed to leave last Friday — a week after he notified Gov. Rick Scott of his resignation.

Graves, who confirmed that he hadn’t heard Evans’ comment in court, said the jurist told him he used to use the term when he was a wrestling coach. “He said I reminded him of one of his wrestlers,” Graves said.

He said he told Evans that his use of the word was inappropriate. But, he said, it’s not a sign that Evans is a bigot.

“I’ve been in front of him for 1 1/2 years and I never felt any racial animus,” he said. “He can be a curmudgeon. He can be a jerk. But he’s fair.”

Attorney John Howe, the first black president of the Palm Beach County Bar Association, agreed.

“I’ve never known or heard of him expressing any kind of ethnic or racial bias,” he said. “It’s sad. It was probably a misjudgment for him to use that particular term.”

After being told the context of the remark, Howe said he isn’t convinced Evans should have been forced to resign. “It was something dumb to say in retrospect,” he said. “But it doesn’t sound like he intended it to be insensitive.”

In these times, when racial bias and bigotry is on the upswing, Howe said such comments have to be addressed. “But sometimes there can be a hypersensitivity. If you don’t know that person, a comment meant to be benign can lead to a situation like this,” he said.

The tape of the Aug. 2 hearing vividly captures the commotion and turmoil that surrounds early-morning court hearings. It also captures Evans’ trademark style, his tendency to be sarcastic and flip.

Graves can be heard talking to one client while Evans summons another one to keep the docket moving. It’s when Evans calls Graves back to the podium to deal with the second client that he utters the fateful phrase.

It’s almost an afterthought. After using it, he continues addressing Graves, explaining to the defense attorney that his new client, Trevious Brown, is charged with driving 103 mph in a 45 mph zone. Brown is also accused of speeding while his license was suspended.

While Evans figures out a way for Brown, a 28-year-old black man, to address the problem with his license, he says dealing with the speeding ticket will be more difficult. “Once you get to 50 miles over the speed limit, it’s kind of like first degree murder. OK? You’ve got a big problem,” Evans says.

Evans ultimately offers Brown a deal. Instead of facing a possible $1,000 fine if he fights the ticket, Evans offers to impose a $500 fine. He gives Brown eight months to pay it. “I want you to not get in trouble anymore,” Evans tells Brown. “OK? Cut this out, Mr. Brown. It’s dumb.”

During his long tenure on the bench, Evans’ was known for his sharp humor, Howe said. “He might bust your chops, but that’s him,” he said. “He’s always been fair.”

In his resignation letter, Evans cited ongoing health problems. He said he was recently diagnosed with lung cancer and is being treated at Moffitt Cancer Center in Tampa. “I have been blessed and honored to serve the people of Palm Beach County and of the state of Florida for 30 years,” he wrote.

Howe described the situation as unfortunate. “It’s a shame that something that was relatively minute tarnished the end of his career,” he said.

Graves voiced similar sentiments. “I don’t like to see anyone go out like that with their reputations besmirched,” he said. “People are going to go around thinking he’s a racist when he’s not,” he said.

Voters on Tuesday will select Evans replacement. If none of the five candidates captures more than 50 percent of the vote, the election will be decided on Nov. 6.

Editor’s Note: This story was updated to include comments from Assistant Public Defender Sheldon Graves.

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