Conflict & Tragedy
Norman Wolfinger’s Action in Trayvon Martin’s murder belies his aggressive prosecution of Black suspects
It was Labor Day 1999 and I had given the staff the day off, but I went into the office on Peachtree Street in Atlanta, Georgia to push some papers from my desk to the desks of several lawyers around town. With a rather large personal injury practice, the four upcoming months were prime road wreck settlement time for the firm.
At 10 p.m. I had enough and headed home. Shortly after steering the car onto Interstate 285 my cell phone rang. It was the wife: “Have you talked with your mother,” she asked. “It’s something about Gerald (my older brother who was living in Lake Mary, Seminole County, Florida). “Someone called from Orlando to say they saw him on the news being arrested for rape.”
“What?” I said in shock. “I’m on my way home, get me on a flight down to Orlando first thing in the morning.”
Rape was out of character for Gerald. I racked my brain. “Maybe he was on a date and the young lady said stop and he keep going, wow, that would be tough to beat because there will be DNA evidence that proved he had sex with her, it would be his word against hers.” My mind was racing a mile a minute. Then my cell phone rang again. It was my mom, her voice in obvious distress. “They said he extorted sex from somebody…” Bam, a light bulb went off. We both said at the same time: “…That doesn’t sound like Gerald.” A mother knows her son and usually has a good idea about what he is capable of doing. So does a brother.
“Don’t worry,” I said, “I will go down there in the morning and get to the bottom of this.”
I did not know what I would discover in Sanford. I knew whatever I discovered would be a lie. A lie I could defeat with the truth. I was no longer worried about the freedom of my brother.
The next day my sister-in-law picked me up at the Orlando Airport. She drove me over to the old Sanford Sheriff Department. I arranged bond and spoke with Gerald. He said a female client in the Drug and Alcohol Rehabilitation Facility, where he worked as a counselor, had alleged he promised her a clean urine report if she would perform a sex act.
He said it never happened and that he had notified her probation officer moments after getting the lab report back that she was being terminated from the program for testing positive for drugs three times in one month.
Because he received the lab report on a day that the client was not due into the rehab facility, the probation officer was notified by telephone of the termination before the client was notified.
Show proof that Gerald had notified the probation officer in the regular course of performing his job and end of prosecution, right?
In search of this proof, I went over to the rehab facility and met with the owner and his staff.
“Harold, Gerald could not have done what they said he did because here is his report in his own handwriting,” the owner said. I took one look at the report, recognizing my brother’s left handed scrawl. He was still sitting in the Sanford jail. “Did you send this over to the probation department,” I asked.
“Yes, I faxed it over there this morning, myself," the owner said.
There was no way he could fabricate a report favorable to his cause while still in the city jail. I called home and informed my mom there was nothing to worry about because the truth bore witness that he had not propositioned the female client.
After getting Gerald bonded out the next day, he and I spent the morning trying to locate a Florida lawyer who would handle such a simple case and get the charges dropped. Gerald could then get back to work and begin to repair the harm done to his reputation from the media blitz about a counselor who had attempted to extort sex from a client of a rehab center.
All of the lawyers had seen two days of news reports and looked at us as if Gerald was guilty of raping a white woman in Florida. We were not getting anywhere so I suggested that we drop by the State Attorney’s office and speak with Stewart Stone, the prosecutor handling the case. As we neared Wolfinger’s office we observed Mr. Stone going into the building.
We approached the receptionist who said she would let him know we were in the lobby. After waiting 45 minutes we were informed that Mr. Stone was not in the office. I left my business card and asked the receptionist to have Mr. Stone call me as I wanted to introduce myself to him.
Two days went by and Mr. Stone did not call me, so on the third day I called and informed him I was a Georgia lawyer and would be locating a Florida lawyer to represent my brother in the case.
Without any pleasantries, Mr. Stone said, “You not a Florida lawyer, I’m not talking to you.” Bam, he hung up the phone.
I began to research Florida law. It did not appear the State Attorney’s office was interested in justice. They had a black man accused of a sexual battery on a white woman and they were going to milk it for all it was worth, truth and justice be damned.
Through Willie Gary’s law office we were able to locate a black attorney who was just moving into the area. He agreed to accept the case. He immediately started talking about copping a plea. We informed him the alleged sexual battery never happen and we wanted the charges dropped or a jury trial.
After a court hearing the court reporter followed me out of the courtroom and said to me she did not think my brother was guilty because the facts just were not adding up and that the lawyer was not working on his behalf.
Gerald fired him and we located a Jewish lawyer who had a problem with the racial dichotomy as well. He did not want to try the case after it became obvious that Mr. Wolfinger and Mr. Stone were not going to dismiss the charge.
On the eve of the trial, the Jewish lawyer had an underworld figure call to threaten me if I did not let the Jewish lawyer off the case. Since they lived in the Miami area, I called the U. S. Attorney’s Office in Miami and notified them of the threat.
The Jewish lawyer did not show up for trial and as fate would have it, after 18 months I had proven to the judge that I was proficient in Florida criminal law. He allowed me to try the case without the aid of a Florida lawyer.
Oh, did I mentioned, that when we got the evidence through discovery there was no DNA evidence? An alleged 10-minute sex act and there was no DNA.
But that’s not all: When we received the tape recording of the alleged victim reporting the alleged crime we discovered that after she informed the late Detective Parker that the suspect “…is black and he drives a Mercedes, a big one,” Detective Parker tells her that she does not have to come in to file a report and that he will drive outside of his jurisdiction over to Winter Park, Orange County, Florida to take her report.
Mr. Stone was beyond rude to me in court. He filed an unsuccessful motion to have me removed from the case. He knew that none of the local lawyers would fight him as hard as I was fighting him.
I traveled to Sanford, Florida, two to three times a month for 18 months before I could get the case to trial. The problem in getting the case to trial was that the State Attorney’s alleged victim was in and out of the penal system for theft and drug use, and often Mr. Wolfinger did not know where she was.
I was forced to hire a private investigator who located her in the Orange County jail serving time for a petty theft during the 2000 Christmas season.
When they could not dodge the truth and my searing cross examination any longer, they got her out of jail, put a dress on her and commenced the trial. After 18 months the charge of extorting sex was dismissed after the State finished presenting its case, just as I had told the jury in my opening statement it would be.
I said all this to say: In Trayvon Martin’s death with more evidence stacking up against George Zimmerman than there was against a well-established black drug and alcohol rehab counselor, why can’t we get an arrest warrant for Mr. Zimmerman? We can then begin to seek the truth of what happened that fateful evening the young black man-child lost his life.
I know for a fact that Norman Wolfinger and his staff attorneys will cover up the truth when confronted with some preconceived racial stereotype.