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A Broward judge is under fire after she repeatedly snapped at a frail inmate who later died at her Lauderhill home.
The inmate’s family accused Circuit Court Judge Merrilee Ehrlich of treating Sandra Twiggs, 59, “like an animal.”
Ehrlich, who was first elected in 2008 and will retire on June 30, presided over first appearance court last weekend, setting preliminary bail amounts for the most recently arrested inmates at the Broward jail.
Chief Judge Jack Tuter, told the South Florida Sun Sentinel on Saturday that Ehrlich filed her formal retirement paperwork two weeks ago, before this incident.
First appearance hearings are streamed on the internet and recorded.
“We never knew anything about this video until yesterday,” said Carolyn Porter, Twiggs’ goddaughter. “She tried to tell us how they treated her, but she had anxiety, and every time she tried to talk about it, she couldn’t breathe.”
Twiggs died Wednesday in her sleep.
Chief Assistant Public Defender Gordon Weekes lamented the fact that the video did not surface until after Twiggs’ death.
“It was bad enough that it happened,” he said, “but it’s compounded by the fact that she never even had the opportunity to get an apology or to have her dignity restored before she passed.”
Twiggs had been arrested on a misdemeanor domestic violence charge. She showed up at for her court appearance in a wheelchair, coughing because she suffered from asthma and chronic lung disease.
Ehrlich and the defendant were not in the same room — Twiggs appeared in a live video feed from a north Broward jail, while Ehrlich was at the main courthouse in downtown Fort Lauderdale.
Ehrlich expressed frustration when Twiggs noted her ailments and said she needed her breathing treatments. “I’m not here to talk about your breathing treatment,” Ehrlich said.
Ehrlich allowed Twiggs to be released without bond, but repeatedly interrupted Twiggs as she was trying to speak. “Ma’am, don’t even say yes. Just listen,” she said, explaining that Twiggs would need to check in with a court office after her release. “You have to arrange for someone to carry you if you cannot get there yourself,” Ehrlich said.
Twiggs’ daughter, who called the police during a dispute late on April 13, has been despondent since seeing the video, Porter said.
“She’s devastated,” said Porter. “She doesn’t want to talk to anyone. It’s eating her up inside.”
She said Twiggs’ family now understands what she couldn’t express about her experience in court.
“I don’t know how the judicial system could let a judge treat these people like animals,” she said. “We all deserve to be treated with dignity and respect.”
Broward Public Defender Howard Finkelstein, whose office represented Twiggs at the April 15 hearing, agreed.
“Ehrlich demonstrated aggressive and tyrannical behavior and revealed her lack of emotional fitness to sit on the bench,” he wrote in a letter to Tuter, demanding Ehrlich’s removal from future criminal and juvenile delinquency cases.
Finkelstein’s letter complained about Ehrlich’s demeanor through both days on the bench in first appearance court last weekend. The judge interrupted attorneys, raised her voice, and reduced one defendant to tears, shouting at her to “be quiet or be removed. Be quiet!”
Video of the exchange was posted on the YouTube under an account called “South Florida Corruption,” then on the courthouse gossip site JAABlog on Thursday, which is how Finkelstein learned about it.
“I was outraged,” Finkelstein said Saturday. “What I saw there was somebody that is not mentally and emotionally fit to sit in judgment of human beings… Nobody should suffer attacks like that because a judge is having a bad day.”
Judges are assigned on a rotating basis to handle first appearance court on weekends. Ehrlich is normally assigned to family court.
Tuter said he had reviewed the video and that Ehrlich will no longer be scheduled for first appearance court because she turned in her formal notice of retirement nearly two weeks ago.
Ehrlich had been openly discussing her retirement plans for several weeks before that.
Efforts to reach Ehrlich by phone, text message and e-mail Friday and Saturday were unsuccessful.
Staff writer Paula McMahon contributed to this report.