A couple weeks ago we brought you news that R.F, a young man who had been in custody in Miami awaiting trial for nearly 5 years, had finally been sentenced and charged. I first met R.F photographing inside Turner Guilford Knight Correctional Center, where he had been incarcerated since the age of 14. After that initial visit, we stayed in touch, and R.F eventually sent me a copy of the manuscript he had been writing about his childhood and life up to that point. There is something to be said about such a young life already having over 100 pages worth of stories to tell. Being in touch with R.F also meant being in touch with Gale Lewis, his public defender and a talented, passionate, immensely hard-working woman. Since the news that R.F’s case is finally moving forward, I recorded an interview with Gale to share with you more details about the case, why it took so long to come to trial and what’s next for R.F.
Richard Ross: How long have you been assistant public defender?
Gale Lewis: Almost 20 years
RR: How are you paid in a case like R.F’s?
G.L: I am paid a flat salary by the State of Florida.
R.R: What drove you to fight so hard, for so long, for R.F?
G.L: My colleagues and I have a certain drive and passion for what we do and believe in. It’s just a part of who I am. In R.F’s case, it was so unfair that he was thrown into the adult criminal justice system at the age of 13.
R.R: Can you explain the deal that he recently took?
G.L: The charges were not reduced. Although I was pushing for that, the State of Florida ultimately did not agree to that. His deal was what we call a split sentence. He received a juvenile disposition on the rape case where he will go to a maximum risk juvenile residential program for 18-36 months. In that facility, he will hopefully finish his high school education, receive vocational training, counseling to deal with everything he has been through in his life, and behavior modification counseling. This will include group and individual counseling. On the other three cases, he received an adult sentence of a withhold of adjudication (meaning he is not a convicted felon), and 10 years of probation with a possibility of early termination at 5 years.
R.R: To date, what are his charges?
G.L: Armed Sexual Battery, Armed Carjacking and Burglary to Dwellings
R.R: Can you explain briefly why you believe it took so long to try him?
G.L: Sometimes it just takes time to get the right result. The State of Florida had this misperception that R.F was the leader of this whole spree, when in fact he was a follower. It didn’t help that we had three different judges and three different prosecutors over the course of my representation of R.F. I know it seemed like an exorbitant amount of time to close the case, but if we had rushed it, R.F would probably be serving 30-plus years in prison right now. Time gave R.F insight to see where he had been and he matured greatly. He didn’t waste his time in jail getting into trouble. He went to school there and he started writing in a journal. He wrote hundreds of pages about his life. It was therapeutic for him. I went up and down the hierarchy at the State Attorney’s office, until someone finally listened. I was able to show the State that Ronald was not the ringleader, that he had the most pathetic childhood fraught with abuse and neglect, and that he had the potential to be a good, contributing member of society if just given a chance. Even though he was in jail for so long, someone was finally paying attention to him. Whether it was me, my social worker, or even corrections officers, he was being shown that people cared about him. This was foreign to him. He started growing and thriving despite the fact he was in jail. I think he would even agree, that if this didn’t happen to him, he would likely be dead.
R.R: Ronald’s co-defendants got much longer/larger sentences– do you agree with these? Are they just/do they fit the crime?
G.L:As of today, two of R.F’s co-defendants have taken plea deals. One took a deal about a month after arrest where he agreed to testify against his codefendants. He received two years in prison followed by 4 years of probation. He finished his prison sentence and is now back in the county jail facing a violation of his probation. I believe they “flipped” the wrong guy. It is my belief that he was actually one of the ring leaders as he is a self professed leader of the gang. The other codefendant took a 30 year prison sentence on a plea deal. He was the oldest at 18 years old upon his arrest for these cases. Two other codefendants are still set for trial.
R.R: Where is R.F going now?
G.L: He is going to a maximum risk juvenile facility in the state of Florida. It’s likely going to be in Okeechobee Florida which is about 3 hours from Miami.
R.R: 10 years of adult probation seems like it’s going to be a significant battle for a young man like R.F, what are your thoughts? Why was that part of the deal?
G.L: Probation is hard for almost anyone. He’s going to have to walk a real straight line. Hopefully we’ll have some support in place when he gets out of the juvenile facility. I know there is talk of sending him back to Massachusetts where he is originally from so he can start anew there with relatives. It was part of the deal because the State wants to make sure that if they’re giving him a chance (i.e. not sending him to prison) that he stays on the right road. They want to monitor him closely. It’s not unusual.