In a surprise ruling last week, Judge Mark Jones not only unsealed the complete record in the Nowatney case, but he said the county would pay for transcripts of the trial proceedings and many of the pre-trial hearings.
This ruling was, in part, a response to State Attorney Kirk Zuelch's whining that he had been unable to answer the criticism we here at Key West The Newspaper have been directing at him for his shameful role in this scandal. To try to "balance" the reporting, Zuelch had asked that a part of the record be unsealed. In a counter motion, the Nowatneys asked that the complete record be unsealed and that the county pay to publish that part of the proceedings that has not been transcribed. Judge Jones granted both motions.
If you're a regular reader of this newspaper, you probably know about the ordeal of Nick and Carrie Nowatney, the young couple falsely accused of child abuse last September. Their two little children were taken away by the State Dept. of Children & Families (DCF) and the State Attorney's Office and shuttled between three different foster homes for 200 days.
Then Zuelch put the parents on trial, virtually bankrupting them.
"The only reason that Zuelch took this case to trial is that we wouldn't plead guilty to something that we didn't do," said Nick Nowatney. "He never had a credible case."
Judge Jones apparently concurred. In May, after less than three days of testimony, Jones said that he had heard enough. He abruptly stopped the trial and threw the case out of court without even bothering to hear the remainder of the Nowatneys' case!
Jones said last week that he was unsealing the record because the case had become "a matter of grave public concern." Here's what we think that means: The public is outraged. Kirk Zuelch is on the way to becoming the most hated man in the Keys and he is up for reelection this year. Let's open up all the records of this case and let the public figure it out for themselves.
What is likely now is that Zuelch and the DCF will pull selected documents out of the record and send them out to the media, hoping to show, somehow, that the judge's ruling was a "close call." Yeah, right. That's why the judge didn't even need to hear all the testimony before throwing Zuelch's trumped-up case out into the street!
But the real significance of Judge Jones' ruling is that, over the next few weeks, the inside story of the Nowatney scandal will gradually emerge, as the proceedings of the trial and the pre-trial hearings are transcribed and released.
We will all get to read, verbatim, the testimony of Carla Buzzel, the DCF's chief investigator. We understand that she admits, under oath, that she really didn't conduct much of an investigation at all before she asked Judge Sandra Taylor to authorize the snatch.
And, we understand, she also admits under oath that she discontinued her investigation after the kids were taken. This resulted in the children languishing in foster care for more than six months, with no one at the DCF making any effort to seek the truth.
It was immediately after Ms. Buzzel's testimony that the judge stopped the trial and threw out the state's case.
We also expect to see documents that will show how hard Zuelch and the DCF continued to work to try to show the Nowatneys were child abusers when the evidence was piling up all around them indicated that child abuse had simply never happened in that family! For example, when full body x-rays of both children showed no evidence of child abuse, Zuelch and the DCF ordered nuclear bone scans! And when the nuclear bone scans showed no evidence of child abuse, they pushed ahead with prosecution anyway!
One medical expert scolded the DCF and the State Attorney's Office: "The initial appropriate concern for the possibility of child abuse . . . quickly gave way to an overly aggressive effort to prove the suspicians true, without attending to the lack of supporting evidence."
We will all get to read, verbatim, the reports that indicate that both 10-month-old Nathan and 3-year-old Natalie Nowatney may have been psychologically damaged by being abruptly separated from their mother. (The DCF tried to keep these reports sealed, but Judge Jones overruled them.)
Maybe Zuelch and the DCF will send us over some previously-secret documents that show that inflicting psychological damage upon two young children is okay as long as it provides work for those who make their living in the "child abuse industry."
On the other hand, we don't expect Zuelch and the DCF to be able to produce any documents that justified holding those children hostage for 200 days in an effort to coerce the parents into pleading guilty. If such documents do exist, don't you think they would have produced them in court?
We also don't expect to be able to locate any documents or correspondence that justifies the fact that Zuelch and the DCF ignored the findings of separate investigations by both the Army and the Navy. Nick Nowatney is a medic in an elite Special Forces unit assigned to the Naval Air Station here so both the Army and the Navy conducted investigations.
Neither investigation found any evidence of child abuse. But Zuelch and the DCF continued to hold the children.
Interviewed in another newspaper last week, Assistant State Attorney Janine Gedmin who was the losing lawyer in the Nowatney case argued, "We most definitely feel we had the evidence to bring this case." She also said that we here at KWTN were off base when we ridiculed her case as "baseless."
Well, Janine, here's a challenge to put your money where your mouth is. Why don't you send us over a little packet of evidence this week that shows you ever had a credible case evidence that shows that you ever had justification to hold those kids for more than six months?!
Let's be real, Janine. If you had any kind of a case at all, why did the judge throw it out without even hearing all the testimony on the other side?! If it was a "close call", as you want us to believe if the judge was having trouble making up his mind as to how he was going to rule wouldn't he, at least, have listened to all the testimony?
Commenting on Judge Jones' decision to unseal the record, Gedmin said, "we felt that it was important for the community to have the opportunity to see what the department did to protect these kids . . ."
Protect them from what? The evidence and the judge's ruling repudiates any argument that the kids were ever in danger while they were with their parents. But they were in danger once they were snatched away by Kirk Zuelch and the DCF.
The record will show that both children may have been psychologically damaged when they were forcibly taken from the parents and separated for 200 days. And the record will also show that Nathan was neglected in a state-approved foster home. When the children were finally returned, Nathan had a diaper rash so severe that it was blistering.
Gedmin also attempted to play word games in arguing that the question in the Nowatney case was never one of guilt or innocence. Oh, yeah? So maybe she wants us all to believe that had the judge ruled against the parents that they wouldn't have been considered guilty of child abuse! Or that their punishment wouldn't have been to accept the DCF's various "services" and allow state case workers to pop into their home at any time. Or that they would not have been listed on the national child abuse register which would have probably ended Nick's military career.
In any event, we understand that Ms. Gedmin at one time attempted to intimidate the Nowatneys by threatening that she might file criminal charges against the Nowatneys "on another day." When Nick Nowatney challenged her to "do it!" so that he and Carrie could get a jury trial Gedmin backed off.
So, let's get on with it, Ms. Gedmin. The judge has unsealed the record. Now, are we all going to get to watch while you trot out the case you woulda, coulda, shoulda made in the courtroom? We hope so. Because, then, we'll see how the Court of Public Opinion judges you and your case.
One thing you should know about the Court of Public Opinion, however. The rules are different. In this court, it's often the lawyers who are on trial!