MARIANNA — A Jackson County judge acted with “judicial vindictiveness” when he sentenced a woman to woman to 20 years in prison for her role in a dangerous meth lab explosion, according to recent decision by an appeals court.
That doesn’t mean Judge William Wright was vindictive in the sense that the word is commonly understood when he sentenced Alicia Baxter to 20 years in prison; it means the circumstances of the sentencing create the “presumption that the sentence imposed is improper,” the court said.
The 1st District Court of Appeal threw out Baxter’s sentence in a decision issued Wednesday. She is to be resentenced by a judge who has not been involved in her case or the case against her co-defendant.
Judges in Florida are not prohibited from engaging in plea negotiations as long as they are impartial arbiters. Wright’s off-the-record comments during the negotiations “seem to reflect something other than a dispassionate stake in the proceeding,” the DCA wrote.
That, coupled with the disparity between the offer and Baxter’s eventual sentence, create a reasonable likelihood Baxter’s ultimate sentence was imposed in retaliation for exercising her right to a jury trial rather than pleading guilty, the court found.
“This case is difficult because it is clothed in the emotionally-charged language of ‘judicial vindictiveness,’ a doctrine so altered from its roots that — as here — relief may be warranted even if the trial judge was not ‘vindictive’ as that word is ordinarily used and defined in the dictionary,” the ruling said.
Baxter and her boyfriend started a fire in a Marianna hotel room when their shake-and-bake meth lab exploded. Baxter’s boyfriend was burned and the hotel, which was booked to capacity, was evacuated.
She was charged with attempting to manufacture a controlled substance, possession of a listed chemical and arson of an occupied structure. Her boyfriend faced similar charges, and they were both offered similar plea deals: a year in the county jail followed by several years of probation. Her boyfriend took the deal.
Baxter accepted the deal too, and Wright sentenced her as he said he would, but she withdrew her plea before the end of the hearing. Wright warned her she faced a possible maximum sentence of 50 years if she went to trial. Baxter said she understood.
“It’s withdrawn. Set it for trial,” Wright said. “There ain’t no more talking.”
That day, Baxter left the courthouse and threw up while her public defender talked with Wright. She wanted to take the deal, the attorney said, but Wright decided not to go with through with another hearing that day because Baxter was ill.
The next day, Baxter returned to court and apologized, saying she had been nervous. At some point that day, Wright told her attorney he’d changed his mind and wouldn’t accept the plea. Baxter was eventually convicted by a jury. Her sentence was 20 times greater than her boyfriend’s.
Throughout negotiations, Wright made off-the-record comments to attorneys that “cops didn’t like” the deal Baxter was being offered, and that the offer had been extended for the benefit of Baxter’s public defender, the court said.
The 1st DCA found that Wright’s eventual decision that everyone should just do their jobs was commendable.