Secret Recordings in Florida DUI Case to Remain Sealed

August 20, 2009

Sean Casey admits having several drinks the night of a fatal accident in 2001. Somewhere around his last rum and Coke, while watching the sun rise at a Miami beach bar, he says he blacked out. Everything after that is a blur.

He doesn’t remember driving home, only waking up in his apartment. But someone slammed Casey’s black BMW into 71-year-old Mary Montgomery as she crossed the street, killing her. Authorities found the car abandoned, its tags leading them to Casey. They charged him with DUI manslaughter, vehicular manslaughter and leaving the scene of a crime.

A few years later, he fled the country before his trial, claiming his lawyer, a big-time attorney now running for judge, told him to leave instead of taking the chance he could go to prison.

Casey says he has the recordings to prove it, but Florida is among several states where it is generally illegal to record someone without their knowledge.

On Tuesday, Miami-Dade Circuit Court Judge John Thornton ruled that the transcripts of those recordings will remain sealed, saying they were made illegally because they were secretly recorded. The judge also found no evidence that attorney Milton Hirsch committed a criminal act.

The judge called the tapes contraband. Casey and his lawyers maintain Florida’s statute is flawed and that regardless of how recordings are made, they should be allowed as evidence because they show a crime has been committed.

Casey said in a jailhouse interview this week that his former attorney, Milton Hirsch, told him “that he wished I could disappear, to get out of harm’s way. He said prison is not a place for you. Prison is a place with big muscle guys.”

Casey also claims his legal psychologist, Dr. Michael Rappaport, told him to leave the country before the trial, telling him “most of the people who leave the country don’t get caught. And there aren’t DUI gay guys from Miami on Interpol’s list.”

The Boston native said he was terrified. He and his family drained their accounts for almost $100,000 to hire Hirsch, a big name lawyer who’d handled prominent national cases including his successful defense of Pedro Guerrero, a former major league all-star, on drug charges.

“When Milton Hirsch tells you to do something, you do it,” said Casey, who speak fluent Spanish.

He talked with his parents and fled to Chile, where he had friends and got a job with the Chilean Press Foundation. As a Georgetown alumnus who once worked for the Inter American Press Association, Casey frequently battled freedom of speech issues in Latin American countries.

He was deported back to the U.S. two years later and pleaded guilty to the charges in the 2001 crash and was sentenced to about 12 years in prison. Now Casey says Hirsch pushed him into pleading guilty, avoiding a trial because the attorney didn’t want the recordings to be revealed.

On Tuesday, Judge Thornton said he listened to the Hirsch tapes, saying they “are not fully accurate, are incomplete and are misleading.”

Hirsch, who is running for circuit judge in Miami-Dade County, has repeatedly denied the claims.

“They’re utterly specious. This is proof that the sillier and less substantial a claim is, the more press it will garner,” Hirsch said in a telephone interview.

But the judge did not listen to the recordings of Rappaport’s alleged conversation with Casey. A message left at Rappaport’s Miami office last week was not returned.

Casey, who tried to withdraw his plea in 2007, says it’s all a cover up and that Hirsch knew what he was implying. Casey wants is the recordings to become public, vacate his plea and have a new trial.

Prosecutor Angelica Zayas accused Casey of using his media connections to get the recording unsealed and put into evidence. “It’s just trying to come in the back door what Casey can’t do at the front door,” she told the judge.

The Reporters’ Committee for the Freedom of the Press and the San Francisco Bay Guardian editor both filed motions to intervene in the case in opposing the state’s motion to seal the transcripts.

Meanwhile, Casey has spent three years in prison as a teacher’s aide helping other inmates get their high school equivalency degrees.

He says one day the truth will come out. He thinks someone slipped something into his drink at the bar that night and then stole his car. Casey says he was never a heavy drinker and had never blacked out before the fatal crash. Blood alcohol tests after he was arrested put him at twice the legal limit.

Casey’s current attorney, Thomas Julin, says he will likely appeal because Florida’s statute “interferes with the search for the truth.”

In 2005, a Miami Herald columnist was fired for failing to get permission to record telephone conversations he had with a former city commissioner under investigation for federal corruption.

A short time later Arthur E. Teele Jr. fatally shot himself in the Herald lobby after asking to speak with columnist Jim DeFede. Teele was later indicted by a federal grand jury on fraud charges.

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