Original judge’s removal from Siesta Key DUI fatality case results in trial delay

The Florida Department of Transportation recently declined a Sarasota County Commission request for more safety features in a curve on Midnight Pass Road where a runner was killed in January. Photo by Rachel Hackney

The defendant in an alleged drunken-driving case that involved the death of a Siesta Key runner in January likely will not be tried before early 2013 because the original judge in the case was disqualified, The Sarasota News Leader has learned.

On April 27, 12th Judicial Circuit Court Chief Judge Andrew Owens Jr. signed an order removing Judge Rick DeFuria from the case of 23-year-old Blake C. Talman and assigning Judge Donna P. Berlin instead.

Talman was charged in January with DUI manslaughter, vehicular homicide, four counts of DUI property damage and one count of leaving the scene of an accident. He had been held at the Sarasota County Jail in downtown Sarasota until he was released on bond on June 20.

The bond on all those counts totaled $108,500, court records show.

After the case was assigned to Berlin, the State Attorney’s Office learned she had no dates available that would allow Talman to go on trial later this year, Assistant State’s Attorney Amanda M. Gambert told the News Leader.

On April 13, court records show, Talman’s attorney, Patricia Edwards of the Sarasota County Public Defender’s Office, filed a motion seeking to disqualify DeFuria from the case. The motion says Talman alleged DeFuria was prejudiced against him and siding with the State of Florida.”

To support that allegation, the motion lists a number of points. Among them, it says that during an April 3 hearing on a defense motion to reduce the bond, DeFuria indicated Talman was a flight risk and denied the motion.

In discussing why he considered Talman “a substantial flight risk,” the motion says, the judge said Talman “had fled one accident and [he] described [Talman’s] acts as ‘cowardly.’”

According to the Florida Highway Patrol, Talman struck another vehicle before he hit 53-year-old Donna Chen, who was running alongside Midnight Pass Road with her dog.

Talman allegedly was fleeing the first accident scene at the time his vehicle struck Chen in an area of Midnight Pass Road that nearby residents have described as dangerous. During a Siesta Key Association meeting this spring, residents said a number of vehicles had veered off the road in that curve and ended up in residents’ yards.

Law enforcement reports on the Chen incident indicated Talman’s vehicle was traveling at a high rate of speed.

In connection with the first collision on Jan. 7, Talman was charged with leaving the scene of an accident with damage greater than $50 without giving information to law enforcement personnel; he also was charged with DUI and property damage to a vehicle.

The defense motion seeking DeFuria’s dismissal from the case also says the judge did not stop with his initial characterization of Talman. According to the motion, DeFuria added, “’first of all to get into a vehicle as intoxicated as [Talman] was …” DeFuria continued, saying some people mght say, “’Well the poor kid was so intoxicated he didn’t know what he was doing,’” but DeFuria said, “Too bad; that’s his fault. Unless someone stuck a hose down his throat and made him drink that much alcohol, he did it himself. And he’s not 16 years old; he’s an adult. He should have known better.’”

According to the motion, DeFuria made yet another comment in reference to the Chen incident, saying Talman did not stop to help her, “nor did he say, ‘Oh, my God, I’m so sorry. I’m sorry. What have I done?’ Did he attempt to comfort her? No. Just the opposite. He fled again.”

Witnesses on Siesta Key Public Beach on Jan. 7 reported having seen Talman and two men with him drinking alcoholic beverages.

Sarasota County Sheriff’s deputies arrested one of the men, Michael E. Blakey, then 26, of North Port, on a charge of disorderly intoxication. They did not arrest Talman or his companion in the Chen crash, David J. Brewer, then 24, of Sarasota, because those two men did not display rude behavior or appear disorderly, Sheriff’s Office records showed.

Wendy Rose, the community affairs manager for the Sheriff’s Office, reported that the last time deputies saw Talman and Brewer, the young men were walking toward the beach.

The motion seeking to have DeFuria removed from the Talman case added that the judge “indicated that Mr. Talman will do anything to avoid accountability to the justice system.”

Because of all the judge’s comments during the bond hearing, the motion says, Talman feared he would not receive a fair trail if DeFuria remained as the presiding judge in the case.

DeFuria has been a 12th Judicial Circuit Court judge since January 2003, according to the Sarasota County Clerk of Court’s website.

Depositions continuing

In late June, Gambert said the state had turned over to the defense all evidence it had developed in the case.

Court records reviewed this week by the News Leader showed Talman’s attorney was continuing to subpoena witnesses for depositions.

A routine hearing has been set for Oct. 30 for Berlin to review how the case is proceeding.

In the meantime, Talman remains under house arrest with a GPS system allowing law enforcement officers to track his location at all times. He also was ordered by the court to wear a SCRAM device, which measures the amount of alcohol in a person’s respiration, according to law enforcement officials. The tamper-resistant equipment fits around a defendant’s ankle.