A state appeals court Wednesday overturned the conviction of a former Naples defense attorney serving probation for attempting to sexually solicit a 14-year old girl over the Internet.
Citing a “highly offensive” cross examination mistakenly allowed by a Palm Beach Circuit judge, the Fourth District Court of Appeal reversed the 2008 conviction and sentence of Steven Mark Siegel, 51, now unemployed and living in Hollywood.
He’s a registered sex offender serving five years of sex-offender probation for attempted felony Internet solicitation. Siegel, who was disbarred, will get a new trial in Palm Beach County.
The case began with chatroom communications in 2003, prompting charges in two Florida counties — and a Pennsylvania investigation.
His attorney, Steve Grogoza of Naples, called the prosecution “political” and contending the lead prosecutors for the Office of Statewide Prosecution — Matt Destry and Lisa Porter — needed a notable prosecution to become Broward County judges.
“The local state attorney refused to prosecute this case so Destry and Porter took this to trial for the Statewide Prosecutor’s Office to prosecute a lawyer in order to promote their own legal futures,” Grogoza said. “As a result, both attorneys who had worked on then- Gov. Charlie Crist’s election campaign were appointed Broward County Circuit Court judges — Destry just before the trial started and Porter just after the trial finished.”
The appeals court ruled Judge Lucy Chernow Brown erred by not allowing Grogoza use peremptory challenges during jury selection to remove three female jurors he’d objected to. The court also ruled Brown shouldn’t have allowed a prosecutor to cross-examine Siegel about another attorney’s defense in a dismissed St. Lucie County case.
On Dec. 23, 2004, Siegel was arrested at a Port St. Lucie restaurant, where he’d traveled from Naples to meet the mother of a 14-year-old girl. The charges were dropped by a prosecutor in March 2006 after his defense attorney in that case, Donald Day of Naples, argued there was no communication with a child or even with anyone posing as a child.
The appeals court ruled questioning about Day’s defense should never have been allowed and barred it in Siegel’s retrial.
“Siegel did not open the door to this irrelevant evidence,” Judge Martha Warner wrote in the nine-page order also signed by judges Spencer Levine and Mark Polen.
“The obvious purpose of this line of questioning was to suggest to the jury that Siegel escaped justice in the St. Lucie County case through his attorney’s legal machinations,” Warner wrote. “This is highly offensive to the constitutional right of counsel guaranteed by the Sixth Amendment and should never have been allowed.”
Under the Williams Rule, prosecutors were allowed to bring in evidence of prior bad acts in similar cases in Port St. Lucie and Pennsylvania, but Warner contended it went too far.
The conviction involved chats that began in January 2003, when a Boynton Beach Police detective, using the name Monica, met Siegel in an Internet chatroom. Siegel began soliciting the girl almost immediately and continued sexually graphic conversations for nearly 10 months.
“I want u to come stay with me,” he wrote. “ … I would tell u what to wear and what to do to me.”
Siegel encouraged the girl to run away to his home and they agreed several times to meet, but the plans always were canceled due to the detective’s schedule. When he was arrested, Siegel denied ever intending to follow through, saying, having sex with a child was only a “dark fantasy.”
The appeals court noted that they discussed meeting, but never did.
The strict requirements under sex-offender probation include wearing an ankle monitor, yearly polygraph exams about sex habits, a sex treatment program, a mandatory curfew, and not being allowed to live or work near parks, schools, day care centers and other areas where children congregate.