The state last week failed to make its case against Clerk of Court Kirk Reams, whom a six-member jury exonerated of the charge of petit theft.
Following a four-plus hour trial on Thursday, Jan. 11, a jury of four women and two men barely took 20 minutes to deliver a verdict of not guilty.
“I feel vindicated,” Reams told the Monticello News. “I feel redeemed. I'm not trying to be naïve, but if you feel you didn't do anything wrong, it's restorative. I put my faith in the justice system, and my faith was well-founded.”
Reams said that to him the most positive and humbling part of the trial occurred during the jury selection process. He said that when the judge asked the 90 or so prospective jurors how many knew Reams, about 80 percent of those present stood up.
Particularly moving, Reams said, was to hear what the jurors had to say about him when they were questioned individually by the judge and attorneys to determine if they would be selected for the jury.
“It was humbling to hear 98 percent of the people say good things about me, my family, and the job I did,” Reams said. “I think it was also an eyeopener for the judge and state attorney to hear
how they felt about me and the job I did.”
He expressed gratitude to the hundreds of people who he said reached out to him via emails, text messages, phone calls or in person to express support.
“I want to thank the friends and supporters who didn't stop believing in me, who prayed for me and kept me in their thoughts,” Reams said.
His goal now, he said, was simply to get back to work and serve the people of Jefferson County.
“I feel I have the support of my coworkers, my colleagues and the overwhelming portion of the community that's behind me,” Reams said. “I just want to get back to work.”
Reams' job, however, remains in limbo despite the jury's exoneration. That's because the Governor suspended him from office in October following the petit theft charge, and the Governor is now saying that it's not up to him to reinstate Reams.
In response to a query to the Governor's office by the Monticello News as to the status of Reams' reinstatement following his exoneration, it appears that the matter rests with lawmakers.
“In accordance with the Florida Constitution, this issue will come before the Florida Senate,” was the email response from Lauren Schenone, press secretary for the Governor's office.
The response did not indicate who would introduce the issue to the Senate, when it would be introduced, or whether it would be taken up by the entire Senate or a committee.
If nothing else, Thursday's trial showed that the state's case against Reams was at best weak. The entire case narrowly focused on Reams lending an unauthorized county-owned computer to his then girlfriend for her personal use between January 2013 and January 2014.
The state called on eight witnesses to establish that Reams had given the computer to his former girlfriend and that she had used it for her personal purposes. Among the eight witnesses were a Florida Department of Law Enforcement (FDLE) agent, an FDLE analyst in the digital evidence section, and a civilian electronics expert who owns a computer business.
The defense, which produced no witnesses, never disputed that Reams had given the laptop to his ex-girlfriend. Attorney David Collins instead focused on three key points: the computer had not been stolen (it was in a courthouse closet/IT storage room when the FDLE had come looking for it); Reams, under county policy, had the authority as a department head to dispose of property under $1,000 worth of value however he saw fit (per the state's own expert witness, the laptop's worth was between $150 and $250); and had Reams wanted to subvert the investigation, he could have destroyed or caused the laptop to disappear or instructed his staff not to cooperate with the investigation.
Collins bore down in particular on FDLE investigator Troy Cope. Collins established that the laptop in question was part of six computers purchased in 2010 for an intended countywide IT section that Reams had envisioned but that had never come to fruition. As it was, five of the six laptops had languished unused in a closet/storage room in the courthouse since 2012, when the IT section had effectively come to an end.
Collins questioned if Cope had discovered during the course of his investigation that Johnny Abroms, who had been in charge of the fledgling IT section, had allowed his girlfriend to use his county-owned computer? Cope admitted knowing about Abroms' situation.
Collins wanted to know why then Abroms hadn't been prosecuted?
“What makes that any different from what Kirk Reams did with his girlfriend?” Collins asked.
Cope said a fine distinction existed. Abroms, he said, had let his girlfriend use the county laptop in his presence, while Reams had allowed his girlfriend to take the laptop off county grounds. Also, Abroms' girlfriend had not possessed the laptop for a year, he said. Cope, however, conceded that he could not say with absolute certainty that Abroms' girlfriend had never taken the laptop off county grounds.
Collins showed Cope a copy of the county's capital asset policy stating that department heads such as Reams had the authority to dispose of property under $1,000 of value by selling, donating or cannibalizing it, without need of County Commission approval.
Cope acknowledged the apparent existence of the policy. But, he observed, the policy required that as part of the disposal procedure, a form be completed, which Reams had failed to do.
Collins also bored down on computer expert Franklin Bowden. The latter conceded under questioning that his determination of the laptop's value was based on the 2010 purchase order, not on an actual examination of the particular laptop.
Indeed, when Assistant State Attorney MacKenzie Hogan pressed Bowden to project the laptop's value in today's market, the latter said he would at most put a $300 price tag on it.
“But I would not expect to get $300,” Bowden said. “I would probably get between $250 and $150.”
Hogan did her best with the case handed her. Diligent, soft-spoken and professional throughout, she emphasized the case's straightforwardness in her closing argument. The defendant, she said, had taken a laptop, allowed it to be used for personal purposes, and in the process had deprived Jefferson County taxpayers of their property. And that, she said, constituted theft. What's more, she said, the laptop had a value, even if it was $300 or less.
“These are the facts of the case,” Hogan said. “They are simple and straightforward.”
Collins in his closing argument was by turns personal, plainspoken and folksy. He reiterated the history of the short-lived IT section, the laptop's low value, the county's capital asset policy giving Reams the authority to dispose of undervalued county property, and the lack of intent on Reams ' part to deprive the county of its property. He also cited the lack of prosecution of Abroms for similar behavior and expressed dismay bordering on a potential loss of faith in the institution of law that the state would dedicate resources to prosecute so minor an issue.
“To commit a crime you have to have an intention,” Collins told the jury. “There is no evidence that Kirk Reams intended to commit a crime. Look at the evidence. What did Jefferson County lose by Kirk letting this young woman use the lap top for her business? What is the crime? He was helping someone. That's all he did. That's not a crime.”
He used the example of a child sneaking into his father's pants' pocket, taking out a couple of quarters to buy bubblegum, and later replacing the two coins without the father's knowledge. Where was the crime int that, he asked. And likewise with the laptop, which had been returned to the county before the FDLE had come looking for it.
In criminal cases, the prosecution gets two chances at the jury in the closing arguments, before and after the defense's presentation.
Hogan in her second address to the jury was more animated and forceful in her presentation. Yes the system had flaws, she said, but Reams had nonetheless committed a crime.
“Taking something even temporarily is still a crime,” Hogan said. “It isn't the crime of the century, but it's still a crime. It's not a defense that because the property came back it's not a crime. We're not here to talk about Abroms; we're here to talk about Reams. And we have to hold people accountable. No one is above the law, not even elected officials.”
ECB Photos by Laz Aleman, Jan. 11, 2018
Assistant State Attorney MacKenzie Hogan confers with others from the State Attorney's office during a recess in the trial.
Defense Attorney David Collins talks with family members, friends and supporters of Kirk Reams during a break in the proceeding.