Finally, after a 2-year wait, the long anticipated Palm Beach version of the O. J. Simpson case was tried, but this time the celebrity defendant was slapped silly by the jury. John Goodman was found guilty of DUI Manslaughter and Vehicular Homicide, both with the Special Circumstances of Failure to Render Aid.
Goodman was drunk when he ran a stop sign and crashed his Bentley into a Hyundai, killing the young driver, Scott Wilson. Wilson’s smashed car flipped into a canal and he slowly drowned while Goodman walked away from the scene. Goodman was remanded into custody awaiting the Court’s sentencing and is looking at between 11½ to 30 years in the big house.
Goodman had it all, a lifestyle that revolved around his polo empire, with enormous wealth that always put him in the top tier of Palm Beach’s rich and famous. He also had the serious coin to hire nationally renowned criminal attorney, Roy Black, whose legal accomplishments include obtaining an acquittal for William Kennedy Smith on rape charges back in 1991.
A dazzling performance during closing argument by Palm Beach Assistant State Attorney Sherri Collins sealed Goodman’s fate and should cause Black to contemplate his retirement. At least Black has a high seven-figure pay day to show for his courtroom loss! Collins’ performance as “second chair” was critical to Goodman’s guilty verdict, in light of the jury’s apparent issues with lead prosecutor, Ellen Roberts. Roberts, a senior prosecutor who is retiring this month, was sternly cautioned by the Judge to stop making faces at the jury after the jury forwarded him a note about Roberts’ strange behavior. Roberts had some key positive moments during the trial, but her screeching style reminded some of fingernails dragging across a chalk board.
It was Collins who pulled no punches in a closing argument that impressed even jaded, veteran courthouse observers. What made her argument so persuasive was the brilliant use of three visuals: a liquor bottle with blue liquor, a “shot” glass, and a “rocks” glass (glass tumbler used for serving an alcoholic beverage with ice cubes). Collins demonstrated by simply pouring the blue liquor into a one ounce shot glass, how much volume of liquor makes up an ounce. Surprisingly, it is not much at all! This demonstration made it easy for Collins to “visually” educate the jury into understanding what a “free-pour” was. This is a drink made without a measuring device. Instead, a liquor or spirit is simply poured into a glass, with the bartender arbitrarily determining what looks like a good height relative to the top of the glass. The celebrity bartenders who were pouring drinks at the White Horse Tavern where Goodman patronized at prior to the accident, were free-pouring. When Collins poured the blue liquor from the shot glass into the rock’s glass, it was astounding how low the height was of the one shot to both the top of the glass, and what one would expect to be an appropriate height for a “decent” size drink. A decent or the next step up, a “stiff” drink, can easily be 4 or 5 ounces. So, when Goodman stated that he only had four drinks prior to the accident, based on the free-pour technique, it could be the equivalent of 12, 16 or 20 ounces of alcohol. For toxicology purposes according to Collins, one drink is equal to one ounce of 100 proof liquor, five ounces of table wine or 12 ounces of beer.
Mr. Tate Yeatman, a forensic toxicology expert with the Palm Beach County Sheriff’s office, had previously testified that Goodman had the equivalent of 16 to 18 drinks in the hours leading up to the fatal crash. Three hours after the crash, Goodman’s blood alcohol level was more than twice the legal limit. The old saying that a picture is worth a thousand words is a little on the low side. In this case, a simple “rocks” glass with blue liquor appears to be worth at least 3,650 days behind bars for Goodman.
Collins continued to tie the facts together throughout her closing argument, explaining how Goodman’s behavior after the accident occurred was inexcusable as she succinctly reminded the jury that a young man died as a result. She told them that Goodman “called his friend, and she had to talk him into calling 911. If the defendant had rendered aid, Scott Wilson would have lived.”
Collins has a gift for cutting through all the endless legal verbiage that takes place during a trial. She explained a simple truth that rang loud and clear throughout the courtroom, “no one has the right to violate the laws that we all share.” Collins closed by reminding the jury that “he [Goodman] didn’t do any of the things that are required by law and, ladies and gentlemen, there is no excuse for that.” What more needed to be said? Collins cemented her legacy as a legal superstar, a rare breed among assistant State Attorneys around South Florida.
For my fans who have followed my prior stories about the former State Attorney, a.k.a. the fearless wonderboy, it was refreshing to see a prosecutor win a big case. I was very impressed with Collins’s performance so I called her up and she graciously agreed to an interview. I recently sat down with Collins at her offices across the street from the main Palm Beach Court House to ask her a few questions about the Goodman trial and to understand what it takes to be a successful violent crimes/homicide prosecutor. The first thing I learned is that one must have an overwhelming passion for public service. Collins has been a prosecutor for over 20 years and has tried 260 jury trials. A graduate of the University of Florida law school, she became a prosecutor for the constant challenges that it offered her inquisitive legal mind. Although Collins told me she could have transitioned into the private sector years ago and made “millions as a criminal attorney,” she still loves her job so much that being rich couldn’t sway her from her continuing mission of public service. Collins even married the man of her dreams, a fellow public servant his entire career, Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, South Regional Director, Chuck Collins. Given her success in putting away “bad guys,” her husband’s proficiency with firearms as a State law enforcement officer gives her peace of mind away from the job.
Collins has taken on a second role as the newly appointed director of legal training and education. A steady stream of new prosecutors continually interrupted our interview with questions about motions and responses from pending criminal cases. Seeing Collins in action there, she reminded me of the equivalent of a legal hard drive, a few terabytes of walking case law and motion practice that can simultaneously answer the newbie’s question while explaining to me the technical basics of forensic science.
When it came to the Goodman case, Collins said that the “facts were very strong” and that much hard work went into the investigation. As an example, Collins showed me some photographs of the level of detail it took to document each of Goodman’s boot prints from the crash scene all the way to the trailer where he called 911. Collins was proud of the team effort and said that “factually the Palm Beach Sheriff’s traffic-homicide investigators did a phenomenal job.”
Collins expressed continuing surprise by all the national media hype focused on the Goodman trial. There has always been an insatiable public appetite for the fabulously rich who have done wrong. The prosecution of Goodman, a multi-millionaire who adopted his girlfriend (making her eligible for a share of a $300 million trust for his biological children), left the scene of an accident to head to a mystery “man cave,” was a case made for the tabloids and cable television news. Throw in the death, by drowning, of the young man whose inexpensive car was smashed and pushed into the canal by Goodman’s Bentley convertible, and Palm Beach County has an instant candidate for the South Florida celebrity case of the 21st Century.
When it comes to DUI trials, Collins says that she has seen it all, yet one case really stood out that puts the horror of driving under the influence in stark perspective. She told me about a woman whose husband was dying at a hospital. The woman called her daughter and son, who immediately drove up with the son’s wife and five month old child, all in the same vehicle. Tragically, all four of them were killed by a drunk driver before they ever were able to give their last goodbyes at their father’s bedside. Collins summed up this case with a warning to those who do not believe in a designated driver after a night on the town: “Every DUI is a DUI manslaughter that didn’t happen because of sheer luck.”
As John Goodman learned the hard way, money will not buy you a “get out of jail card” if Sherri Collins is sitting at the prosecution table. Goodman’s defense team should have taken a plea deal in lieu of suffering an embarrassing and costly failure, both in million of dollars in legal fees and years in jail for Goodman. The lesson learned for the rest of us, don’t drink and drive. If you do, and one day you find yourself as a defendant in Palm Beach County with Collins offering you a plea deal for your criminal infraction, take the plea. If not, Palm Beach’s legal action hero, a.k.a. the Dazzling Dynamo, will shred your defense during your trial and leave you crying as you ponder what ever made you roll the dice and have a jury determine your fate. Remember, you never take a knife to a gunfight.