Miami-Dade County

Release of killer stuns victim's kin

The first outrage was delivered through the barrel of an Uzi submachine gun: Lee Arthur Lawrence, a prominent grocer fighting the thugs encroaching on his West Perrine store, was shot and killed on the orders of a neighborhood drug dealer in 1989.

The next indignity came more recently at the Florida City Wal-Mart: Family members stumbled upon Lawrence's killer, a man once awaiting execution on Death Row. After a court overturned his conviction and he pleaded guilty to lesser charges, Bobbie Lee Robinson was free -- 17 years and 359 days after police first arrested him.

But widow Sarah Lawrence, who had kept up with the case and testified over the years, never received advance notice as required by law. Robinson, it turned out, was let out of prison on April 1.

"He was released on my father's birthday, " said Lee Arthur Lawrence Jr., 41, shaking his head. His father would have been 69. "Isn't that something?"

Lawrence's killing in a spray of 30 bullets rocked West Perrine, spawning a movement to curb the crack dealing and drug violence that had plagued the community.

Beyond the local impact, the slaying gained national notice and turned Lawrence into a symbol. A New York Times editorial hailed Lawrence as "a martyr to the drug war." Then-President George H.W. Bush dispatched son Jeb to speak at the funeral. And Reader's Digest told the story as well.

CONFRONTING CRIME

It was the tale of a hard-working businessman who so wanted his neighborhood streets cleaned up that he confronted dealers who dared to try to peddle their stuff on his turf.

"I don't profess to be important or anything like that, " Lawrence told The Miami Herald in a 1987 interview. "I'm just concerned about my community. If everyone would stand up to dealers and thieves, we wouldn't have the problem."

In the years since his murder, the Lawrence family has come to terms with their loss. The widow and son still run Lee's Grocery, a local landmark, at Southwest 175th Street and 104th Avenue.

Strengthened by their faith, they say they have swallowed any bitterness they once felt toward Robinson. But they are far less forgiving of the justice system. Robinson is back on the streets as a free man for reasons they cannot understand. They feel wronged -- again.

The facts of the case, put simply: Robinson had wanted to rule the streets of West Perrine, one of Miami-Dade County's most rampant open-air drug markets in the late 1980s. And Lawrence stood in his way. So Robinson hired a trio of men from the Scott project in Liberty City to do the dirty work, the men would later tell police.

A bystander, Bernard Williams, was critically wounded in the shooting; another, Josiah Dukes, dodged the bullets. Four men in all were convicted, including Robinson, who received the death penalty.

How, then, did a man convicted of first-degree murder who faced death end up free after 18 years?

Robinson's 1991 conviction was overturned in 1997, when the state Supreme Court found that his court-appointed public defender, Alan Soven, had badly mishandled the case.

The high court also noted that the Miami-Dade trial judge, Alfonso Sepe, had been implicated during the Robinson trial in the sweeping judicial corruption crackdown known as Operation Court Broom. Sepe later went to prison.

After Robinson's conviction was overturned, prosecutors didn't think they could retry a case nearly a decade old, said Gail Levine, the assistant state attorney who handled the prosecution in the later years. Witnesses had died or disappeared; others refused to cooperate. And old court transcripts could not be used in future proceedings.

So the state offered Robinson a deal: 35 years for pleading guilty to second-degree murder and two counts of attempted second-degree murder -- and credit for the 15 years already served.

BARGAIN MADE

Robinson accepted the offer. That was in 2004.

But the reality of the deal was much more favorable to Robinson than the Lawrence family had imagined. Because of liberal early-release provisions and Florida law at the time of the slaying, the state shaved 17 years off the time Robinson had left to serve.

He had racked up time off for good behavior. He also benefited from "basic gain time, " which was awarded at 10 days a month just for being in prison, and early-release credits, which were instituted to relieve prison overcrowding in the early 1990s.

Levine said she explained to Sarah Lawrence, the widow, that Robinson would be eligible for the gain time, and that Lawrence had agreed to the plea deal. However, Levine did not specifically tell Lawrence that Robinson would return to the streets less than three years later, in 2007.

"Quite frankly, getting a 35-year plea deal was significant, " Levine said. "What Ms. Lawrence was faced with was he could do 35 years with gain time, or he would walk out of the courtroom -- that was the hard choice."

So, much sooner than the widow would have liked, Robinson walked out of prison.

"For one to go from Death Row to essentially time served is mind-boggling, " Sarah Lawrence said. "This was a crime against a community, a community which today continues to fight the same battle my husband did 18 years ago."

A transcript of the sentencing hearing shows that all of the parties used technical jargon about Robinson's deal. Judge Stanford Blake asked Sarah Lawrence if she understood the plea, and she said yes.

But now, she admits, "If you don't know the rules and regulations, you are lost."

Robinson declined to comment through his appellate attorney, Bruce Fleisher. He did not respond to a letter sent to his West Perrine home seeking comment.

Fleisher said Robinson, now 47, is trying to get his life back together after nearly two decades behind bars and is working on a book about his life.

'A FORGIVING GOD'

Still, Sarah Lawrence said she does not dwell in the past. Today, she prays for Robinson's soul.

"God is in the plan. He has taken care of it, " she said. "He is a forgiving God."

She prefers to reflect on the life of her late husband. "He was a man of all men. He was a caring man, not just for his family, but for his community and everyone."

Lawrence's son recalled nights when his father would come home breathless, his face flushed, after arguing with young drug pushers outside his store.

"He would go straight to you, right in your face, and say, 'Young man, what you're doing is not allowed here. Please leave, ' " Lawrence Jr. said. "That's the type of person he was. A straightforward person. A beautiful man."

Curtis Lawrence, a cousin, said Robinson's newfound freedom has caused the family to lose all faith in the legal system.

"Mr. Robinson has been released, " he said. "There is absolutely nothing we can do about that. Our concern is that the criminal justice system continues to do stuff like this. It is the reason that you find crime so high in areas like West Perrine."

NO NOTIFICATION

Adding insult, the family said, was the failure of the state Department of Corrections to notify them in advance of Robinson's impending release, as required by state law.

That's why Lawrence Jr. was so surprised to run across Robinson in the Wal-Mart. He quickly ushered his mother outside the store to avoid face-to-face contact.

Jo Ellyn Rackleff, a spokeswoman for the corrections department, said the family's home address was not on file in the Robinson case. But Sarah Lawrence said she receives letters from the state whenever David Ingraham and Ronnie Johnson -- the two convicted shooters -- file appeals or other motions. Johnson sits on Death Row. Ingraham is serving life.

Sarah Lawrence finally did get a notice in the mail about Robinson's release -- in June, almost three months too late.

"I really feel that the system let us down, " she said. "It really did."

KEY DATES

* March 20, 1989: Lee Arthur Lawrence shot to death at his West Perrine grocery store.

* April 7, 1989: Bobbie Lee Robinson arrested for setting up Lawrence's slaying.

* March 26, 1991: Robinson's first-degree murder trial begins.

* April 17, 1991: Robinson convicted of first-degree murder; later sentenced to death.

* Nov. 13, 1997: Florida Supreme Court orders new trial.

* Aug. 24, 2004: Robinson accepts plea deal to lesser charges, is sentenced to 35 years with credit time for served.

* April 1, 2007: Robinson released from state prison.

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