For most of his 22 years on the bench, Circuit Judge Stanford Blake presided over some of Miami’s biggest criminal cases with a blend of humor, calm and legal gravitas.
Those who appeared before him included a crooked FBI agent tied in with murderous mobsters, a Coral Gables man who dispatched a gunman to assassinate his parents and a South Beach druggie who cut up a teenager girl and flushed her down the toilet.
But perhaps the most meaningful cases were the ones that never drew TV cameras. Defendants like Alexander Fiallo, 47, a one-time crack-cocaine addict who kept returning to Blake’s courtroom on charges after repeatedly failing to get sober.
“You have to stop running, and learn to crawl,” Blake told him over a decade ago, one of many earnest pep talks he gave to Fiallo over months.
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It worked. Today, Fiallo is married with children and owns a successful company manufacturing Jamaican meat patties. And it was Blake who had the honor recently of visiting a Narcotics Anonymous meeting – to present Fiallo with a medallion celebrating 12 years of sobriety.
“I owe everything to Stan,” Fiallo said. “He was really kind to me. He really cared if I stayed clean or not. He didn’t just want to put me away. He could have thrown me in jail, but he really cared about me.”
Now, it’s Blake’s turn to be honored.
On Wednesday, Blake put on his black robe and took the bench for the final time. In his last case, the judge ordered a drug test for a father and mandated he work out a child-sharing plan with his former wife.
“It was really tough walking off for the last time. It was like a baseball player playing his last ball game,” Blake said Wednesday. “I made my last ruling, signed my last order, and walked out. There was a feeling of sadness.”
Judges and staff honored Blake with a luncheon hours later. “I’m going to miss him so much,” said Miami-Dade Chief Judge Bertila Soto. “He was more than a colleague. He was a friend.”
One of the most venerated and popular judges in Miami’s legal community, Blake retires at 67 after surviving a bout with oral cancer that left his voice scratchy, but his will undaunted. He now moves on to another career doing legal mediation – and spending time traveling with his girlfriend, Lisa Goldberg.
Blake’s career has been well chronicled.
A former criminal defense attorney, Blake was motivated to run for judge after the infamous Court Broom judicial corruption scandal of the early 1990s. He was elected in 1994.
One year later, he donated a kidney to his brother, Robert, for successful transplant surgery that prolonged his sibling’s life for another decade. Stanford Blake returned to the bench 18 days after he underwent the surgery.
Blake’s most recent stints came in civil and family court, but he was known chiefly for presiding over some of the most visible criminal cases in Miami.
One of this earliest was that of Miami-Dade Police Officer Michael Hufnagel, who was accused of repeatedly raping his stepdaughter back in the 1970s and 1980s. The victim later became a police officer and reported the crimes as an adult – even secretly taping the man admitting to the crimes.
“People were hurt by your actions,” Blake told him at the time, before sentencing him to eight years in prison. “I hope your life will be put back together.”
For nine years, Blake served as the chief administrative judge over the criminal division, handling major cases while juggling the logistics of keeping justice running smoothly.
Around the Richard E. Gerstein Justice Building, he was known for his wit and grace, trying cases for fellow judges when their workload was too much, making jurors feel at ease during a stressful time. During one big trial, out-of-town journalists marveled at his touch when Blake shared his birthday cake with the jury.
“He was an incredible people person. The way he treated jurors gave them a sense of civic duty,” said Miami-Dade Chief Assistant State Attorney Kathleen Hoague. “At the end of the trial, they felt like they had served their country.”
Blake was also known for welcoming successive Miami Herald courts reporters with coffee in his chambers filled with University of Florida and University of Miami memorabilia. “He was basically a mensch in a black robe,” said former Miami Herald courts reporter Manny Garcia, now the editor of the Naples Daily News. “Judge Blake is a gentleman, discerning jurist with a great sense of humor and heart.”
His longtime judicial assistant, Terry Sullivan, who passed away in 2013, was the mother hen for Herald courts reporters, passing along tips on the latest only-in-Miami cases. She adored Blake – when he was an assistant public defender in the 1970s, she spotted his talent.
“I can tell you’re going to be a judge one day. And I’m going to be your J.A.” she said. Later, Sullivan would serve as his assistant for 15 years before retiring.
His courtroom was 4-1, the most spacious and historic courtroom in the grimy old building, where the biggest trials unfolded.
Those included the trials of Christopher Sutton, convicted of ordering the assassination of his prominent lawyer father; Maria Catabay, convicted in the burglary that led to the slaying of a well-known Coral Gables doctor; and Michael Seibert, who was sentenced to death for killing a teenager and hacking her up.
The judge also presided over the trial of ex-Boston FBI agent John Connolly, who was the handler for notorious mobster James “Whitey” Bulger.
At the 2008 trial in Miami, a parade of gangland killers took to the stand to show how Connolly was in cahoots with Bulger, passing along the key info that led to the murder of a gambling executive in Miami in 1982. The saga was later turned into a Hollywood movie starring Johhny Depp.
“It was like watching the movie Black Mass in person,” Blake recalled. “It was an absolutely amazing two-month trial.”
Blake never shied away from the tough legal decisions away either.
Last year, he became the first Florida judge to declare someone immune from a civil lawsuit under the state’s Stand-Your-Ground law. In that case, a unarmed deaf mute man was shot to death by a Miami Shores homeowner while trying to steal a WaveRunner from a back yard; prosecutors declined to press charges.
He also made a crucial ruling that kept intact the guilty verdict against Connolly, the FBI agent whose conviction was eventually upheld by higher courts.
Back in September 2008, Blake ruled that the overwhelmed Miami-Dade Public Defender’s Office could withdraw from handling third-degree felony cases because of “extreme and excessive caseloads.”
He was rarely reversed by the appellate courts, though he never faulted anyone for trying. In a setting defined by conflict and adversity, Blake carried himself with aplomb and courtesy.
Blake recalls sentencing a career criminal to 40 years in prison. The man thanked him. Blake wondered why.
“I’m thanking you for respecting me,” the man said. “I never felt treated any different than the jurors or the lawyers.”
Then he added: “I hope you ass gets reversed on appeal.”
Blake and the courtroom broke out into laughter. The conviction was upheld.