Broward judge berates, screams at disabled woman
A Broward County circuit judge delivered a blistering, arm-waving, face-palming, tongue-lashing to a frail, out-of-breath woman — pushed into court in a wheelchair — who was facing misdemeanor charges following a family feud.
Three days later, the defendant died.
Judge Merrillee Ehrlich has resigned, although it is unclear when that resignation was provided and when it becomes effective.
News of the death of Sandra Faye Twiggs, 59, surfaced Friday.
The courtroom rant last Sunday was so over the top that Broward's elected public defender, Howard Finkelstein, demanded that Judge Merrilee Ehrlich be banned from the criminal courthouse.
"It is not appropriate for anyone to endure that kind of treatment," said Finkelstein's chief assistant, Gordon Weekes. "All that was required was a bit of patience, and a bit of respect to allow this lady to speak, to gather herself and to breathe."
Instead, Twiggs died, "and never had the opportunity to have her dignity restored," Weekes said.
Twiggs suffered from asthma and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, also called COPD. She ended up under arrest after squabbling with her 19-year-old daughter.
“My mom is gone and there is nothing I can do about it,” said Michelle Ballard, the daughter. “I’m now a teenager who will have to bury her mother.”
Said Carolyn Porter, a family friend of Twiggs: “She came home so devastated she couldn't catch her breath.”
Porter told the Miami Herald that once Twiggs was released from jail and taken back home, she was starving, dizzy and borderline breathless. She had trouble getting her medications in the jail, Porter said.
Anna Twiggs, the woman's sister, found her dead in her bed Wednesday morning, the day after she was released, Porter added.
Sandra Faye Twiggs had never been in trouble before when the Lauderhill Police Department charged her on April 13 with scratching her daughter during a domestic dispute that began with a disagreement over a fan. Two days later, Twiggs was wheeled into Ehrlich's courtroom. She was coughing and gasping for breath.
Twiggs suffered from asthma and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, or COPD.
In a video of the April 15 encounter, Ehrlich appears to the left in a split screen, and Twiggs is shown seated in a wheelchair, barely visible above a lectern at the North Broward satellite courthouse. Ehrlich asks Twiggs whether she and her daughter, the alleged victim, live in the same house.
Twiggs tries to answer the question, which requires more than a "yes" or "no" because the 19-year-old doesn't live with Twiggs full-time. Mid-sentence, Ehrlich snaps at her: "Excuse me! Don't say anything beyond what I am asking you!" Clearly exasperated, Ehrlich asks Twiggs' lawyer, who is in a different location during the video hookup, to make Twiggs stop talking.
As Twiggs coughs and holds her head, Ehrlich speaks to deputies, who are off-screen: "Can someone there give her water as a kindness?" But the judge's anger continues to boil over. Twiggs tries to tell the judge that she needs medical treatment for her pulmonary problems.
The judge erupts: "Ma'am, I am not here to talk to you about your breathing treatments!"
Again, Ehrlich prevails upon Twiggs' lawyer to teach her better courtroom manners. "Will you say something in the microphone so that she can hear you and you can give her instructions about propriety in the court?" the judge says. "I'm not going to spend all day with her interrupting me," Ehrlich says.
"You've already said too much!" the judge yells later, as Twiggs tries to answer another question.
After disposing of Twiggs' case, Ehrlich's next defendant is a 30-year-old Fort Lauderdale woman charged with misdemeanor domestic battery. A police report says the woman allegedly pushed and slapped a man and then pulled his t-shirt, causing it "to stretch out and slightly tear."
The woman is worried about who will care for her 9-month-old baby while she is in jail. She begins to sob and shake. "Don't talk! You have an attorney here talking for you!" Ehrlich shouts. "Ma'am, be quiet or be removed! Be quiet!
In a letter to Broward's chief judge, Jack Tuter, Finkelstein wrote that Ehrlich "demonstrated aggressive and tyrannical behavior and revealed her lack of emotional fitness to sit on the bench," during the back-to-back hearings. He called the judge's behavior "shocking, and an embarrassment to Broward County."
The Herald was unable to reach the judge Friday evening.
Said Porter, the family friend: “Yes people go to jail but they don’t have to be treated like animals because they're in jail. ... That courtroom, that jail cell was the last life she lived — that's the way she lived the last days of her life.”