Convict who spent 29 years on lam after killing to get new trial

A state appeals court ruled he should have been told his public defender was impaired by alcohol

James Edward Sims

James Edward Sims

A former Lee County public defender whose intoxication at trial prompted an appeals court to order a new trial for a man convicted of manslaughter has been placed on probation by the state's highest court.

On Wednesday, the 2nd District Court of Appeal in Lakeland amended minor portions of its June ruling involving attorney Karen Miller of Fort Myers, including correcting the name of the presiding Lee Circuit judge, John Dommerich, who had erred in not granting defendant James Edward Sims a mistrial or allowing him to participate in a private discussion with the judge, prosecutor and Miller. In the judge's chambers, the judge and prosecutor confronted Miller over concerns she was impaired by alcohol.

Miller was later fired from the Lee County Public Defender's Office due to substance abuse and is now in private practice.

This month, the Florida Supreme Court publicly reprimanded her and placed her on three years’ probation following a complaint about misconduct and criminal misconduct filed with The Florida Bar.

Bar records show a Lee Circuit judge had filed a complaint, citing her failure to appear in court several times and concern that she was intoxicated when she left a voicemail message saying she was sick. The bar complaint also cited various traffic charges, including two DUIs and another DUI stop in which she refused to submit to a breath test, convictions for DUI and careless driving, and an alcohol problem that ended in her going to rehab twice.

The man she represented, Sims, was sentenced to 17 years in state prison in 2011. He'd spent 29 years on the lam before he was convicted of killing a man outside a Fort Myers strip club in 1981. He fled Fort Myers after the shooting, fearing he wouldn’t receive a fair trial.

Thirty-two years later, the appeals court ruled he hadn't received a fair trial.

“Unfortunately, during his trial Mr. Sims was excluded from an in-chambers conference at which the trial judge and the assistant state attorney addressed their concerns that Mr. Sims' attorney was impaired and unable adequately to represent Mr. Sims,” the three-judge panel wrote in its nine-page ruling, referring to Miller, who had been arrested on a DUI charge that weekend. “Although we fully understand why the trial judge elected to hold this conference in private, Mr. Sims had a constitutional right to be present at this crucial stage of the proceeding.”

The appellate court noted it struggled with the case, partly because Sims, who had been charged with second-degree murder, was convicted of a lesser offense, manslaughter, a “reasonably fair outcome.”

“On the other hand, Mr. Sims is almost seventy years of age, and the 17-year term of imprisonment that he is serving is probably longer than his life expectancy,” the judges wrote.

Sims will be sent back to Lee County jail, where he will be held pending a new trial.

He was convicted on Oct. 6, 2011, of manslaughter with a firearm in the death of Roy Radabaugh. Sims, however, claimed Radabaugh shot himself during an argument over a stripper, Lafonda Dalton.

Testimony showed Sims was good friends with Dalton, who told him Radabaugh had assaulted and raped her. On Jan. 18, 1981, Sims learned Radabaugh was in the bar's parking lot, so he approached his parked truck, where Radabaugh sat in the driver's seat. Sims pointed a .38 caliber gun at his head and it discharged, killing him.

Sims, who operated an underwater salvage company with four employees, said goodbye to his wife and fled to Miami to collect a debt, then to Chicago. He later assumed the identity of a Nebraska man killed in a car accident in 1972, went to Nevada, then settled in California, never again speaking to his wife, daughter and two stepchildren. His wife died in 1984.

In 2005, “America’s Most Wanted” ran a feature on Sims to no avail. Five years later, he was located, when cold case detectives matched a fingerprint he had provided to the California Department of Motor Vehicles to one on file.

Testimony during the four-day trial showed he’d lived as Willis Bronas for 19 years in Lakewood, Calif., operating another underwater salvage company, and living with a longtime girlfriend, Sharon Beard, for 17 years.

Sims told jurors he planned to make a citizen’s arrest of Radabaugh, but pulled out his gun because another man was in Radabaugh’s truck with a knife. He said he put the gun inside the driver’s side window, pointing it at the man in the passenger seat. Although medical experts testified no gunpowder was found on Radabaugh’s hands, Sims said Radabaugh had grabbed the gun barrel, turned it toward himself and pulled the trigger, killing himself.

A poem was found in Radabaugh’s wallet after the shooting and Miller had argued the note’s dark overtones suggested it was a suicide note. A medical examiner’s report agreed, but jurors never heard about it because the poem was excluded from evidence because it couldn’t be proven that it reflected Radabaugh’s mental state at the time of the shooting.

During closing arguments, Assistant State Attorney Cynthia Ross contended the shooting was an act of vengeance after Dalton said she wanted Radabaugh dead.

The appellate court ruling includes what occurred behind closed doors. It shows the judge thought Miller was acting strangely and that he branded jury selection a “rather bizarre experience.” The prosecutor said people in the courtroom were concerned Miller was not functioning at her full capacity and that her speech and comprehension seemed abnormal. The judge also cited his concern and explained someone had questioned whether she’d had something to drink before court on the first day of trial. Miller denied drinking before court, saying she’d had a "knock-down drag-out" with another judge and had a cold, but was only taking vitamins and aspirin.

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