Newspaper article The Florida Times Union

Volunteer Hooked on Court Drama

Newspaper article The Florida Times Union

Volunteer Hooked on Court Drama

Article excerpt

Byline: Charlie Patton, Times-Union columnist

Even lawyers realize lawyers can be tedious, attorney Matthew Fishbein told a St. Augustine jury yesterday morning. Which goes to prove that Dick Braendle has a high tolerance for tedium.

For the last seven years, Braendle, 78, a retired chemical engineer who lives in Ponte Vedra Beach, has made a full-time hobby out of sitting in courtrooms. Usually they are in the Duval County Courthouse, where Braendle generally spends 35 to 40 hours a week as a volunteer court-watcher for the Justice Coalition, the Jacksonville victims rights organization founded in 1995 by restaurant owner Ted Hires.

But yesterday, Braendle visited the St. Johns County Courthouse to observe the trial of Jerry Layne Rogers, who was convicted of the murder of a St. Augustine grocery store assistant manager in 1984. The Florida Supreme Court ordered a retrial last year.

Fishbein, a former federal prosecutor, gave a closing argument in Rogers' defense that Braendle called the best he had ever witnessed.

Not that it changed his opinion that Rogers is guilty, an opinion the jury later agreed with by delivering a guilty verdict. Braendle says that after watching 1,000 trials over the last seven years, he believes it is exceedingly rare that an innocent person actually goes to trial. He's also convinced that he's never seen an innocent person convicted of a crime, while he's seen plenty of guilty people go free.

Of course, as Braendle admits, he remained convinced during the 2000 murder trial of 15-year-old Brenton Butler that the Jacksonville teenager had committed murder, even after it became clear that police had coerced a confession. It was only after Brenton's attorneys, Duval County public defenders, Patrick McGuinness and Ann Finnell, provided evidence that someone else had committed the murder that Braendle conceded Butler was the rare (in his view) innocent defendant. …

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