A routine hearing to suppress evidence in a criminal trial was anything but typical with a defense lawyer and judge yelling, lawyers snapping and a threat of contempt shouted down from the bench. And the Virginia man accused of committing a string of seven car-jacking robberies in Bonita Springs and Fort Myers could only sit in the courtroom Friday and watch the show. Defense lawyer David Brener argued that Fabian Melton, 25, of Norfolk, was arrested illegally on March 29, 2004. Fort Myers Police Sgt. Dennis Eads testified Friday that he saw Melton take a gun from the trunk of a white Chevrolet Corsica and put it into the waistband of his pants before getting into the car. Since the arrest was illegal, Brener said Friday, the weapon police found inside and comments Melton made to detectives should be tossed out of court.
“Did you know if he had a permit to carry a concealed firearm?” Brener asked Eads, launching rapid-fire questions at him about whether he actually saw a gun or merely an object in Melton’s pants. Melton is charged with robbery with a firearm, carrying a concealed firearm, carjacking, kidnapping, robbery with a weapon and home invasion/robbery while possessing a firearm. He initially was arrested on the carrying a concealed firearm charge. Assistant State Attorney Betsy Biffl repeatedly protested Brener’s rephrased questions. With everyone talking at once, Lee County Circuit Judge Thomas S. Reese had had enough.
“Counsel, I don’t want to hear these complaints. I want to hear your arguments,” Reese said as Brener continued to search for comments in a previous hearing’s written transcript, while adding that he hadn’t received a copy. Brener said he simply wanted to repeat accurately some investigators’ prior testimony, and how he said they’ve changed their stories. “If I recall it one way I’m going to make a ruling on it,” Reese said, his face reddening as Brener continued to argue louder. “Don’t argue with me or we’ll be proceeding on a contempt (of court hearing).”
“When I try to refer to the transcript the judge is yelling at me. I don’t know what to do, judge,” Brener fired back. “Under Brown (v. Illinois), if the arrest is unlawful, the statements are the fruit of the unlawful arrest.” Under the state’s 10-20-life law, using a firearm to commit a crime triggers a mandatory 10-year prison term. Reese ruled that Melton was legally arrested, allowing the gun and Melton’s comments to police to be used if he goes to trial. “I didn’t physically see the gun, but I knew it was a gun,” Eads testified Friday. “If you’re not a criminal, you wouldn’t put a gun down the front of your pants.”
Fort Myers police and Lee County sheriff’s investigators arrested Melton and co-defendant Victor Rodriguez, 21, of Fort Myers, who in November 2005 signed a plea deal calling for 25 years in prison and his testimony against Melton and another co-defendant, Montrell D. Green, 33, of Fort Myers. It was Green, police reports said, who told investigators they would find Rodriguez and Melton at the Brittany Apartments in Fort Myers. Fort Myers police and Lee County sheriff’s investigators staked out the parking lot, arresting Melton and Rodriguez after they got into the white car. Victims had said a white Chevy was used in some attacks.
The robberies started March 15, 2004, at the Brittany Apartments. Attacks also were reported March 17, March 22 and March 23 in Fort Myers. On March 26, two roommates at 23680 Walden Center Drive, Bonita Springs, reported that they were hog-tied with electrical cords after the one roommate was car-jacked, driven to an ATM and robbed. Green was convicted by a judge in November 2005 on charges of robbery, car-jacking, kidnapping and robbery with a weapon in the March 28, 2004, attack in Bonita Springs. This victim was car-jacked in the parking lot of 28100 Dovewood Court, taken to an ATM and robbed, hog-tied in his apartment and robbed again. Green’s sentencing in this case is scheduled for 1 p.m. Monday.
“No, he didn’t, but the officer didn’t know it,” Brener said after the hearing about whether Melton had a concealed carry permit. “The subsequent interrogation only added to the illegality of the practice.” Biffl declined to comment on the courtroom fireworks after the hearing. She said she will talk with the victims about possible plea deals. Brener said the last offer was for 40 years. The three defendants have, combined, 19 criminal cases.
“We’re slowly but surely getting through them,” Biffl said after the hearing.