Brandon Washington, the former Palm Coast gang leader serving life in prison for murder and racketeering, may getting another chance at contesting his sentence. The Fifth District Court of Appeal today ruled in favor of his appeal on three grounds, among them that his attorney did not present evidence or a witness who could have provided an alibi, undermining the state’s claim that Washington was at the scene of the home invasion and murder. The ruling by a unanimous three-judge panel may result in a new hearing before a circuit judge locally, though Washington’s appeal is still a long shot.
The case originated with a home invasion at 43 Pheasant Drive in Palm Coast on Dec. 18, 2007. Rashawn Pugh, a 20-year-old gang associate of Washington’s, was among the intruders. Sean Christopher Adams, a resident at the house, drew his gun and shot him dead. Given the circumstances of the killing, the assailants were charged for the murder, among them Washington. It took the Flagler County Sheriff’s Office and the Florida Department of Law Enforcement years to put together a case against him, including charges under what’s known as RICO, or racketeering.
Assistant State Prosecutor Jason Lewis called Washington “the OG–the original gangster,” the man who once said “I run Palm Coast,” the untouchable leader of the Blood Nation gang, “an organization that terrorizes the community,” in Lewis’s words to a Flagler County jury when the case finally reached trial in 2011. It was the culmination of the Sheriff’s Office’s own battle against local gangs, or rather Washington’s dominant gang, which was also known as 9-Tek Grenades or the Brick Mafia.
“They break into homes,” Lewis told the jury. “They rob from people. They steal. They assault people. They beat you up if you don’t join their group. We know who Brandon Washington is, ladies and gentlemen. Brandon Washington is gun after gun after gun after gun after gun. He uses those guns to terrorize people. He uses those guns to keep control of his group and his territory.”
The trial was in its seventh day. Lewis, the most theatrical of the State Attorney’s prosecutors but also one of its most effective, was giving the state’s second and final go at closing arguments (Jennifer Dunton had done the first), at one point calling the defense’s claim that the case against Washington lacked evidence was “ridiculous.” That immediately caused a rebuke from Circuit Judge Raul Zambrano (now the chief judge of the circuit), who in a sidebar upbraided Lewis: “Don’t use the word ‘ridiculous’ again. That’s outside the boundaries,” the judge told Lewis.
But Lewis and Dunton probably had the jury at “Gang,” while Washington, who’d gone through three attorneys before finally accepting a fourth, opted to represent himself at different points, though Fernando Iglesias represented him throughout trial. He’d also made weird objections, such as his name in official court papers being all capitalized, rendering him “a fictitious entity,” according to a letter he wrote the judge, or that the circuit court had no jurisdiction to try him. He was asking for a “maritime trial.”
He’d been offered a plea of 30 to 40 years in prison. He’d rejected it, as is his right. It took the jury two hours and 40 minutes to reach a verdict: guilty on all counts. Zambrano, at Washington’s request, immediately sentenced him to four life in prison terms and 15 years on the attempted home invasion count, a conviction Washington successfully appealed previously.
Washington appealed his sentence in 2016 on 14 grounds, some of them objecting to minor errors of style or typography than to substantial errors of law, some of them claiming ineffective representation from his attorney. He was granted a hearing on two of the 14 grounds, but Circuit Judge Dennis Craig upheld the conviction in 2017. Washington appealed to the Fifth District Court of Appeal.
Today, the Fifth District upheld Craig’s ruling on 11 of the counts, but reversed in full or in part on three of the counts, and ordered a new evidentiary hearing on at least two of those three counts, or grounds. (The grounds are listed as 11, 12 and 14 in the appeal.)
In Ground 11, Washington is claiming that his attorney failed to call several witnesses who he says could have helped his case. At the hearing before Craig the court could have heard and even accept Washington’s claims about what the witnesses might have said on his behalf, even in their absence–unless the record conclusively rebuts those claims. Washington listed 13 such witnesses. Craig refuted all 13. The Fifth District ruled that Craig was right regarding 10 of those witnesses, but the documents Craig attached to refute claims regarding three more were not sufficient. The court now may either revise that documentation or include that portion of the appeal in the next evidentiary hearing.
In Ground 12 and 14, Washington claims records or a particular witness would have provided alibis, showing that he was not at the scene of the murder when it took place. Iglesias, Washington claims, “did not secure certain telephone records and a voice mail message that [Washington] left for the murder victim,” 20-year-old gang associate Rashawn Pugh. Washington argues that “those records would demonstrate that he was at home during the home invasion, rather than standing by close to the subject house.”
“If the telephone records and voice mail support Appellant’s claim, that evidence would directly contradict the testimony of several of the State’s witnesses who claimed Appellant was nearby the house being invaded during the crime,” the appellate court ruled. “This supposedly conflicting evidence may have undermined the credibility of those who testified against him, which may have led to a different outcome.” The lower court did not “conclusively refute those particular claims,” the the three-judge panel ruled.
Additionally, Washington claims Iglesias did not ask the right questions to witness Kim Burgos, who had testified at trial. “Burgos would have testified, if asked, that she and [Washington] were together the entire day before and during the time the home invasion was underway,” the appeal court found. “Such testimony would have undermined the credibility of the State’s witnesses who testified that [Washington] had been with them in the hours before and after the burglary. However, it would have also directly contradicted the State’s testimony that [Washington] helped to plan the burglary with his co-conspirators that day.” (It’s not clear why that “however” is included in the sentence, which adds to rather than refutes the preceding sentence.)