Crime

South Beach free-speech advocate, jailed for fatal DUI wreck, wants records sealed

Sean Casey
Sean Casey Florida Department of Corrections

Former South Beach resident Sean Casey built a career on promoting the freedom of journalists across Latin America.

And when he mowed down an elderly woman in a drunk-driving wreck in 2001, Casey and supporters cited press freedom in calling for the courts to unveil evidence they insisted showed that he’d been unfairly convicted.

His efforts failed, Casey is still waging a legal battle — but this time, to hide evidence of his crime from the public.

As he nears his release from state prison, Casey is asking a judge to seal all court records detailing his conviction for DUI manslaughter, so he can again travel freely abroad once released.

The Miami-Dade State Attorney’s Office called his request “absurd and “legal chutzpah.”

“He claims he wants to continue his career as a journalist to assist other countries to develop a strong, free and independent press,” prosecutors Penny Brill and Gail Levine wrote in a response, “but yet he wants to hide public information, something that should be abhorrent to any real journalist.”

Said defense attorney David S. Markus: “This request is about redemption. He served a long prison sentence. He’d like a a second chance to go on with his career and his life.”

A Miami-Dade judge will consider the request, the latest twist in legal theater that has drawn out for more than a decade.

In March 2001, Casey plowed his BMW into 71-year-old Mary Montgomery as she crossed the street carrying a bag of groceries in Miami Beach. She died. Police officers immediately arrested Casey, then 27, after finding his damaged car parked at his South Beach apartment.

At the time, he worked as a projects administrator for the Inter American Press Association. Before trial, Casey traveled frequently for work, including free-press conferences in Argentina, Brazil and Panama.

Then he fled to Chile, spending two years on the lam before his extradition. In October 2006 Casey pleaded guilty and got 12 years in prison.

Casey soon began a quest to withdraw his plea. He claimed his then-attorney, Milton Hirsch, “advised” him to flee to Chile, then pressured him to plead guilty upon his return — to cover up for the lawyer’s supposed unethical advice.

As proof, Casey revealed illegally recorded audio recordings of a conversation between him, his mother and Hirsch (who is now a circuit court judge) at the lawyer’s office.

“I wish I could wave my wand and make Sean disappear magically, you know. I wish I could cause him to simply reappear on the Planet Vulcan . . . or something like that and be out of harm’s way,” Casey claimed Hirsch said.

Taping someone without their consent is generally illegal in Florida. Casey and his mother invoked their right against self-incrimination during a 2007 hearing.

Casey embarked on a media blitz, creating a detailed website, FreeSeanCasey.org, while the IAPA and the Reporters Committee for the Freedom of the Press supported Casey's desire to unseal the tapes.

In 2009 Bruce Brugmann, the editor of an alternative weekly newspaper in San Francisco, also asked a Miami-Dade judge to unseal the tapes. Casey also enlisted the help of Thomas Julin, a prominent media-law lawyer.

A judge in 2009 found “no direct or indirect evidence of criminal actions” by Hirsch, who repeatedly told Casey he was prepared to fight the case at trial. Hirsch, at the time, called Casey’s claims “nonsense.” The tapes remained sealed, a decision upheld by an appeals court.

One year ago Julin and IAPA members met with State Attorney Katherine Fernandez Rundle and prosecutors on the case. The state agreed to allow for the reduction of the sentence by one year — if Casey wrote a letter of apology.

“There are no excuses for my criminal behavior before and after the accident,” he wrote.

Last month, Casey filed his request to seal his record. Many countries, including Chile, do not generally allow people convicted of crimes in their home nations to enter the country.

“It is hard to imagine anyone ever having an interest in the case file of this unfortunate traffic accident that happened over a decade ago,” Casey wrote in his letter to Circuit Judge Miguel de la O.

Casey even referenced “increased public awareness” on the promotion of free speech after January’s Charlie Hebdo massacre in Paris. “If I am unable to travel abroad because of the conviction in my court file, my career is over,” he wrote. “I beg the court for a second chance.”

Casey’s quests — to unseal audio recordings in his case, then seal his own criminal conviction — left media-law experts baffled.

Barbara A. Petersen, president of Florida’s First Amendment Foundation, said she supports proposed legislation that might allow for certain citizen covert recordings that uncover criminal activity. The Florida Supreme Court recently threw out the conviction of a man whose stepdaughter recorded evidence of her molestation.

But Casey’s latest request is “kind of odd to say the least,” Petersen said.

“I’m generally opposed to the expungement of records,” she said, adding: “A DUI manslaughter is a very serious crime.”

Under Florida’s liberal open-records law, court records are rarely sealed — usually when it might protect the secrecy of an ongoing criminal investigation, trade secrets or to “avoid substantial injury to innocent third parties.”

The Miami Herald will oppose Casey’s request.

“There are very, very limited reasons that our laws allow a file in a criminal case to be sealed,” said lawyer Scott Ponce, who is representing the newspaper. “Closure to allow a convicted felon to travel the world is not one of them.”

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