Something was amiss the moment Circuit Judge Dennis Craig walked into the courtroom that May morning in 2018. But something had been amiss for weeks as Craig and Junior Barrett, Dorothy Singer’s attorney, had sparred again and again in pre-trial hearings. Sometimes attorneys and judges don’t click. These two didn’t. The defendant’s militant surliness and outright refusal to attend some of her own hearings didn’t help.
There’d been a half dozen pre-trial hearings, but nothing out of the ordinary in matters of delays. That morning, Craig was not interested in hearing any further motions that would delay Singer’s trial on a first-degree murder charge of killing her husband on their Mondex property in 2017. It didn’t seem to matter how critical the motion might be, or that days earlier he’d described the Florida Department of Law Enforcement crime lab as infallible, a contention the defense found outrageous. (Craig was a former prosecutor.)
Craig walked into the courtroom as if he had somewhere to go–which he did: he was being transferred to the felony bench in Volusia County, and he wanted to get this trial done.
The trial went ahead, a jury found Singer guilty and Craig sentenced her to life in prison. But the hastiness would end up having consequences. Last month the Fifth District Court of Appeal reversed the judgment in part, and ordered a new trial. Craig had been wrong to deny one of Barrett’s motions, the 5th District ruled.
That’s why Singer was back in court in Bunnell this morning, brought in from Lowell Annex prison in Ocala, her first in a limited series of pre-trials before a new trial date is set.
Circuit Judge Terence Perkins, who’ll be presiding over the new trial, set March 11 as the next pre-trial and April 28 for docket sounding, the last step before trial starting on May 18 with jury selection. Singer was in court, all but wordless as she stood next to Barrett for the brief hearing. It took about five minutes. She is to remain at the Flagler County jail between now and her trial.
The appeals court’s reversal had to do with splotches of blood on a headboard in the bedroom Singer shared with her husband. Splotches Singer and her attorney claimed to have known nothing about when the trial started. Singer was prepared for a self-defense argument: she claimed she and her husband, Charles, had fought that February night in 2017 (they had a history of domestic violence), but they’d fought outside the house, and she’d shot him in self-defense, then buried him in the yard, beneath an overturned jon boat.
Singer described in a letter she wrote a sheriff’s investigator that Charles that night had been confrontational toward her, dragging her outside and threatening to shove her into a hog pen. They struggled, the gun went off. She claimed she passed out and woke up only to find herself sitting on top of him, firing bullets at his head–and all this as she got flashbacks long after the killing, after she read an article on FlaglerLive about her husband’s disappearance and started remembering that night.
The theory is at odds with much of the evidence the prosecution presented at trial. Singer did not shoot him once or twice but five times, and not from a distance but at close range, execution style–three times on top of the head, once to the temple, once in the chest with a .22-caliber Magnum. The medical examiner testified that shots to the top of the head would have been possible only if Charles was prone.
Singer had also executed an elaborate plan to hide the killing. The bedroom had been bleached, the mattress discarded, Charles long mothballed and buried in a tarp in the backyard. Singer herself was preparing to go on the run weeks after the killing, aware that detectives were closing in. She’d concocted a story about killing herself, even left what looked like a suicide note on a detective’s windshield, which suggested to authorities she may have been attempting to fake her death. The day she was arrested, she was attempting to escape to St. Johns County. Detectives would put together a timeline and portrait of Singer going to considerable lengths to reimagine what had taken place the night of the fatal shooting, inventing stories about Charles going out of state to work, texting her and calling her.
She had lied to her family and friends. She could have lied to her attorney about where the shooting took place. Barrett appeared surprised when the prosecution, two weeks before trial, informed him by email that DNA analysis had placed Charles’s blood on the headboard in the bedroom, throwing Barrett’s defense strategy in shambles. Even the prosecution conceded in a pre-trial that the DNA result “shifts their defense drastically” (though it seemed difficult to imagine that, with evidence of a bleached bedroom, Barrett had not at least considered the possibility that the shooting had taken place in the bedroom, unless conceding that much would make a self-defense strategy much more difficult.)
Either way, it was the judge’s dismissive, almost contemptuous responses, that formed the basis of Barrett’s appeal. If FDLE was “that bad, we might need to get a new lab,” Craig said at one point.
“Now, as far as ineffective assistance of counsel, you moved to continue the case as soon as you got the results. I denied it,” Craig said. “You then followed that up with a written motion. I denied it. I think as far as counsel goes, how are you being ineffective? So the real question is – – the real question isn’t whether you’re being ineffective or not by not doing this, but whether or not the Court is making a mistake by denying your motion to continue for this. Now, it seems to me that this is even more than hitting the lottery, that that’s not the victim’s blood. So why should I continue the case?”
Barrett pointed out that FDLE had made mistakes before. ”Well, if they’re gonna make a mistake – – Mr. Barrett, hold on, hold on, you know, not only was – – you know, did they not come back and say that it was human blood, but it was one particular human,” Craig said in a particularly acrid exchange.
“They’ve done their report, Judge,” Barrett said.
“So, Mr. Barrett, you go ahead and find me a case where they made a mistake like that and I’ll give you your continuance, but until then you’re not going to get a continuance for that,” the judge said.
In fact, it would not have cost Craig much to continue the case except in time: he was taking a risk, and Barett knew the judge was taking a risk, as Barrett then positioned several of his moves for an appeal–a tactic that paid dividends.
Five days after that hearing, Barrett filed a motion to have Craig disqualified, which he denied as he walked into court the day of trial. The appeals court affirmed Craig’s decision on that count.
It reversed on Barrett’s claim that he was denied the proper time to prepare for trial: “As to the time for preparation, the experience of counsel, and complexity of the case, defense counsel had only twelve days to analyze the FDLE report,” the appeals court ruled. “Based on counsel’s limited experience with DNA cases and lack of familiarity with FDLE’s current procedures, combined with the complexity of the expert report at issue here, we conclude that twelve days was wholly inadequate to prepare for trial.”
The five page ruling’s conclusion included a veiled admonition: “We recognize the trial courts’ busy dockets and the need to effectively and efficiently dispose of cases,” Judge Eric Eisnaugle wrote for the court (he was joined by Judge Meredith Sasso and Senior Judge Bruce Jacobus). “Therefore, trial courts are often faced with a difficult balance when a party seeks to continue a long-scheduled trial. However, docket management, the expense of a continuance, and the trial court’s assumption that an FDLE report is unassailable do not override a defendant’s due process rights to an adequate opportunity to prepare for trial and to challenge the State’s evidence.”
The killing and burial took place at 80 Pine Tree Lane in western Flagler, a property that the Singers never owned. It sold a few months after the murder.