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It was a sweltering Florida August night, the air conditioner provided no relief, and Evelyn Jackson was pregnant. To cool off, she stepped outside into her small, fenced front yard. Big mistake, Broward Chief Judge Dale Ross would later rule. Jackson was on community control — house arrest — for aggravated battery that night when she took in the evening air. And Ross, comparing what Jackson had done to a “jailbreak,” found her guilty of violating the rules of confinement, revoked her community control and, at a September 1999 hearing, packed her off to prison for 39.9 months. But on Dec. 4, after Jackson had spent 15 months in prison, a three-judge panel of the 4th District Court of Appeal upended Ross’ order. It took issue with the chief judge’s reasoning and administered a scolding. “The trial court,” the panel said, “abused its discretion.” The ruling marked the third time in the past 12 months that Ross has been slapped by the West Palm Beach, Fla., appellate court for his treatment of a defendant accused of a minor probation violation. The judges ordered that Jackson be placed back on house arrest to finish her original sentence of one year on community control plus three years of probation. “It is certainly reasonable to conclude that [Jackson], having a limited education, pregnant and with no air conditioning, believed she was not violating her condition of community control by stepping outside and remaining on the premises of her residence,” the panel wrote. “This was not a jailbreak,” the judges said. Jackson, 28, was still in prison on Wednesday and it was unclear whether she would be released in time for Christmas. When she is released, it will be long after she gave birth to her baby in a state prison ward. Jackson’s son, Jacobie, is now 8 months old. She hasn’t seen him since he was 4 days old. That’s when Jackson was forced by the prison system to sign him over to the care of her sister, Dorothy Jackson of Fort Lauderdale, Fla. However, Evelyn Jackson won’t be able to take her son home when they finally are reunited. She rented her home from the Department of Housing and Urban Development, and the federal housing agency, which has rules that give tenants the boot if they are sent to prison, formally kicked her out more than a year ago. “She’ll have to stay with me or mom,” said Dorothy Jackson, who was unaware of the appellate court’s order. Fort Lauderdale lawyers Patrick and Cynthia Curry represented Jackson before Ross. They would not discuss the case. In May, this column reported how the 4th District reversed an eight-year prison sentence imposed by Judge Ross on a 19-year-old man on community control who got home from his court-approved job about an hour late. Cory Riddle, who’d pleaded guilty to two counts of aggravated battery when he was 17, had telephoned his control officer to let her know that he’d be late because of on-the-job delays. But she’d turned off her beeper and never got the message. As in the Evelyn Jackson case, the 4th District judges found there hadn’t been a willful or substantial violation of the law by Riddle. In a withering opinion, they flogged Judge Ross for acting like a prosecutor in a robe by badgering lawyers and “aggressively” questioning Riddle and witnesses “on matters that had not been raised by the state. “The judge must above all be neutral and his neutrality should be of the tough variety that will not bend or break under stress,” wrote Judge John Dell. “The judge’s neutrality should be such that even the defendant will feel that his trial was fair.” Then there’s the case of partially disabled Janet Hern, whom Ross disciplined for failing to remain confined to her residence. On May 17, 1999, Hern attended a session at Broward County Alcohol and Drug Abuse Services. She’d successfully completed phases 1 and 2, and had attended two previous sessions of phase 3, the judges said. The group let out at 8:15 p.m. and Hern’s curfew was at 8:30 p.m. She planned to take a bus, but missed it. So, she decided to walk home rather than wait nearly an hour for the next bus. “Hern suffered from two disabilities which limited her mobility. She had fractured her foot several weeks earlier. She also suffers from myasthenia gravis, a neuromuscular disorder,” the judges wrote in the opinion. “After stopping twice to rest during her 45-minute walk, she arrived home at approximately 9:05 p.m.” Hern arrived to news from her boyfriend that her community control officer had been by to check on her. Hern tried to call and explain, but the officer didn’t answer his phone. She explained it to him the next day. Last Dec. 30, noting that even “the state concedes the violation was not willful and substantial, another 4th District panel reversed Ross’ decision to revoke Hern’s community control. “In this case, the record demonstrates that Hern made reasonable efforts to comply with the conditions of her community control,” the judges wrote. Ross didn’t return two phone calls seeking comment about his rulings in these cases. But courthouse sources said the chief judge recently decided to stop taking new probation and community control violation cases. From now on, they said, Ross will preside over juvenile court matters.

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