Rare secret hearing features suspect, no prosecutors in murder case of woman whose body was dumped in Palm Beach Gardens

Updated July 28, 2014

Less than a month after friends and family said their goodbyes, the case surrounding the June murder of 35-year-old Margeaux Greenwald has become the subject of a rare secret hearing.

This month, Circuit Judge Karen Miller granted murder suspect Herbert Savell’s request for a closed hearing that excluded state prosecutors.

Such hearings are almost unheard of in state courts. Local defense attorneys say Savell’s lawyers may have asked for it to temporarily keep prosecutors from discovering their defense strategy, or to pursue their own investigation while protecting Savell’s rights against incriminating himself.

“There are a number of different reasons why,” Savell’s attorney, Assistant Public Defender James Snowden, said about the unusual request. “It’s for our own investigation.”

Savell, 26, of Semmes, Ala., faces first-degree murder charges after he told police that he and another man beat Greenwald to death with a baseball bat on June 5. Savell led Palm Beach Gardens police to a remote area near The Gardens Mall where they found her body.

Prosecutors now are building a case around Savell’s detailed, bizarre confession, while his alleged accomplice has yet to be arrested or even identified publicly.

Despite objections from prosecutors, Miller granted Savell’s request on July 16 for a secret hearing, called an ex-parte hearing, where his lawyer asked to use the court’s authority to get records without prosecutors knowing.

The hearing took place two days later with only Miller, Savell and Savell’s defense team — including Snowden — present.

Court records show that Miller granted one of Snowden’s requests during the hearing. Snowden wouldn’t say whether other issues remain undecided.

In the July 16 hearing, prosecutor Aleathea McRoberts told the judge the exchange of information between the state and defense in a case like this should be an open and reciprocal process. McRoberts already has started turning over to the defense supplemental police reports and other evidence. The judge ruled in the defense’s favor, however, allowing the closed hearing.

One reason Savell’s defense could want to keep prosecutors from knowing what evidence they are digging up is that they believe there’s a chance the information they find could hurt their client’s case. If it does, then the defense has no obligation to tell prosecutors about it because of Savell’s Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination.

Prosecutors, on the other hand, are ethically obligated to disclose to defense attorneys evidence they gather if it could potentially exonerate a suspect.

Savell’s attorneys also could be using the cloaked inquiry as a temporary measure to keep prosecutors from knowing a possible avenue for their defense until they’ve had enough time to pursue it. In that case, the judge could set a date to unseal the private request to prosecutors and the public eventually will know what the defense was seeking.

Local defense attorney Joseph Walsh says he’s asked for an ex-parte hearing only once in more than a decade of practice. He did it in a domestic battery case to get the phone records of the arresting officer after his client told him the officer had behaved inappropriately with her and also tried to contact her several days after her arrest.

“I wanted to have the ability to use it or not use it depending on what I found without having to tell the other side about it,” Walsh said, adding that the case eventually settled and he later told the prosecutor the details.

It’s unclear at this point what impact, if any, the details from the secret hearing will have on Savell’s case.

Savell told Palm Beach Gardens police that he was with Greenwald and another man at Greenwald’s Boynton Beach home when Greenwald passed out under the influence of drugs. Greenwald, originally from New Jersey, was a recovering addict who worked at a drug rehabilitation center.

Savell said he and the other man bound Greenwald’s hands and feet with belts and neckties, put her in a garbage bag and covered the bag with a rain poncho before they stuffed her into the trunk of her 2005 Chrysler 300 and drove north.

At some point, Savell said, he and the other man heard Greenwald banging on the hood of the trunk. He said they stopped at a Target store and bought an aluminum bat, which they used to beat Greenwald to death once they got to Palm Beach Gardens. The arrest report doesn’t cite a motive for the killing.

The next hearing in Savell’s case is scheduled for Aug. 8.