About Michael Freeman

Michael W. Freeman is a veteran journalist, playwright and author. Born and raised in Fall River, Massachusetts, he has lived in Orlando since 2002. Michael has worked for some of Florida's largest newspapers, including The Orlando Sentinel. His original plays have draw strong audiences at the Orlando Fringe Festival. He is the author of the novels "Bloody Rabbit" and "Koby's New Home."

A day in the life at Probation Court: freedom revoked, and some mercy

ORLANDO – They form a continuous parade as they march into the courtroom, wearing orange or dark blue jail jumpsuits, their legs shackled and hands cuffed.  They represent people who committed crimes and were judged guilty, then given a second chance to prove they could still play by the rules.

But if they show up at Courtroom 9D at the Orange County Courthouse in downtown Orlando, it’s because the state wants to prove they didn’t follow those rules, and probably can’t.  Many of the inmates in the courtroom look dazed and depressed.  They know what’s likely to happen.

Probation offers those who have committed crimes the ability to live on the outside world, but if they violate the rules of probation, it means jail time awaits them.

This is Probation Court, the room where Circuit Court Judge Alice Blackwell presides over inmates who were given that opportunity to live on the outside, to hold jobs and to do whatever they wanted to – as long as the obeyed the strict rules of being on probation, which includes meeting once a month with an assigned probation officer.  Their appearance before Judge Blackwell means they were rearrested for violating their probation, and have been sitting in the Orange County Corrections jail, sometimes for days, sometimes longer, waiting to learn their fate.

It’s up to Judge Blackwell to decide if these inmates who were given that second chance blew it and should have the terms of their probation revoked – or if there are extenuating circumstances that suggest they really can handle being on the outisde, among those who never committed a crime to begin with.

In most instances, the judge doesn’t even make that decision – the inmate has agreed to plead guilty, or no contest, to the violation, and if it’s up the judge to decide if she wants to accept the punishment worked out by the inmate’s lawyer and the state prosecutor, Shannon Corack.

Jeremiah Autry is just 20, but with his boyish face, looks even younger.  He quietly answered the judge’s questions after agreeing, through his attorney, to plead guilty. He’d been arrested in August 2009 on drug charges, and placed on probation in January 2010. But he failed to make the court ordered payments, had his driver’s license suspended last June, and the Lakeland resident got picked by Polk County Sheriff’s deputies earlier this month and was transported back to Orange County jail. He entered a plea on violating the terms of his probation, and agreed to a 90 day jail sentence.

In sentencing him, Judge Blackwell imposed a $100 court cost, then asked when he could pay it after his sentence has been served.

“I’ll pay when I get out of jail,” Autry said.

The judge also noted that Polk County had charged Orange County $5.50 to transport him, and added, “I also have to impose $5.50 for the cost of your transport from Polk County, so the total will be $105.50.”

Hector Rosa was brought into the courtroom in a wheelchair, his hands and feet still cuffed.  Just 18, his original charges included grand theft of a motor vehicle, possession of marijuana and cocaine, attempting to elude a police officer, aggravated battery on a law enforcement officer, and resisting an officer without violence. Now he had probation violation to add to the list.

Judge Blackwell decided to send him back to jail, but also made note of the fact that when he completed the sentence, he would be a convicted felon. At his age, she wondered aloud if his attorney had fully explained to him the implcations of that.

“Is that acceptable to you as a way to resolve your case?” she asked. “Your face says yes, your mouth says no.”

As a felon, she said, “You won’t be able to vote. You won’t be able to own any weapons or any kind of ammunition. You will not be able to enter the Armed Services. You won’t qualify for certain types of jobs where you need a bond because you won’t be bondable.  Did your lawyer explain all these consequences to you?”

Rosa said he understood, and the judge sentenced him to 10 months in the Orange County jail, where he’s been since Dec. 31.

Several inmates, picked up recently on probation violation charges, were told they’d have to wait a little longer in jail, until February, when the judge would meet with their attorney for a status hearing.

“That will give your attorney some time to talk with you and make some decisions about what to do about your case,” Judge Blackwell told one defendant as she set the status hearing for Feb. 2. In the meantime, the inmate remains in jail.

For others who agreed to plead guilty, the judge noted that she was terminating their probation, which had allowed them to remain outside of jail, to hold a job, support their family, go to movies and do whatever they want, so long as they attend a monthly meeting with their probation officer. Now, having violating the rules, “There won’t be any further probation to follow,” Blackwell advised them. Other times, she would sternly warn, “This is a no excuses situation – are we clear?”

She also made a point of advising inmates to start paying their court costs as soon as they get out of jail.  They’re routinely given 30 days to reintegrate into society and “get your life reestablished in the community,” Blackwell said.  Then they would need to start making monthly payments, even small ones.

“Your driver’s license can be suspended or revoked if you don’t follow the rules of Collection Court,” Blackwell said.

Not everyone had their probation revoked. Terri Lynn Pittman, 36, of Apopka, violated probation by missing two of the monthly meetings with her probation officer.  Pittman told the judge she had three children to support, and a job with Habitat for Humanity.  She had been placed on 18 months of probation in July 2010.

When the judge asked Pittman why she’d missed the meetings, Pittman tearfully said “Because of work.  They were going to cut our hours because things were slow.”

Fearing that she might lose the job, she stayed at work and called her probation officer to reschedule.

“She said, ‘Be here first thing in the morning at 8 o’clock,’ and I was,” Pittman said.

Pittman told the judge she’d been with Habitat for a year, that it was a good, stable job, and she would lose it – and the ability to support her children – if she went back to jail.

“I really love it and I’m really good at it,” Pittman said.

The state wasn’t convinced. Corack noted that her probation officer had been forced to go searching for Pittman.

“A probation officer went above and beyond trying to locate her,” Corack said.  “Despite numerous attempts, she did not show up in October and November. The state believes six months in Orange County jail.”

The judge agreed that inmates on probation can’t expect their probation officer to chase them.

“It’s your responsibility to go to probation,” Blackwell said.  “They’re not supposed to go looking for you.”

The judge did agree to reinstate Pittman’s probation, but only after warning her that any more missed meetings, and there would be no more mercy to hand down.

“I’m not going to put you back on if you just avoid it again,” Judge Blackwell said.  “You can’t wait for her to issue an invitation.  You have to go.  I’m willing to give you another shot at it, but it’s a no excuse situation.”

That prompted Pittman to promise, “You’re not going to see me again.”

After imposing each sentence, the judge concluded by offering the same parting comment to every inmate, including those headed from freedom to incarceration:

“Good luck to you, sir.”

 Contact us at FreelineOrlando@gmail.com.

Blissful Lotus celebrates local artists often censured by mainstream galleries.

Orlando artist Tina Foote's paintings reflect women in erotic situations.

ORLANDO – Adeline Rivera remembers that when she was growing up on Staten Island, she often had strange visions that haunted her.

“It started when I was about eight years old,” she said.  “I started having dreams that were coming true – which was freaky.”

When she turned 16, she sought out books on ghosts, the supernatural, and the paranormal, and discovered something interesting: the chapters on extrasensory perception, which involves receiving information not gathered from physical senses, but rather sensed within the mind.  Sometimes referred to as a sixth sense, Rivera recognized what she was reading about in herself.

“There are a lot of things about ESP that really opened my eyes,” she said.  “The more I read, the more I realized, ‘I could do that,’ and ‘I could do that.’ “

It wasn’t an easy thing to recognize, though.

“My mom was evangelical, and she kicked me out of her house when I was in high school,” Rivera said.  “I lived in my car for two years.”

Today, Rivera has a home in Orlando, where she reads people’s fortunes.

“It’s something I’ve been doing for 21 years,” she said.  “I use my crystal ball, or I have my set of Tarot cards, although a good reader doesn’t need anything.”

She has no bitter feelings about her past, calling it “life lessons. I’m self-sufficient now.”

She’s also ready to help others, including couples who want to improve their relationship.  That’s why Rivera attended the EroticBliss Party, held on Saturday at the Blissful Lotis boutique in downtown Orlando, where she told the fortunes of couples and individuals who wanted to know where their romantic life was headed.

“This is about generating intimacy between couples and keeping them alive,” Rivera said.  “You don’t have to fall into the doldrums of romance.”

Blissful Lotus, she said, is the ideal place for a celebration like this one.

“One of the things that keeps me coming back here is it’s a very positive environment,” Rivera said.  “In terms of single women, it helps them with their confidence levels.  It’s been very transformative for them.”

The EroticBliss Party was something else: an artistic night, and a celebration not just of erotica, but erotica as art.

“This is a great way to start your Saturday night,” said Sean Ramsay, who operates the Blissful Lotus boutique along with his wife, Stacey Murphy. “This event goes from 8 o’clock to 11, and every couple of months we do this.”

The Blissful Lotus boutique hosts EroticBliss Parties that celebrate sensual art.

By 8:30 that night, the erotic boutique on Orange Avenue had attracted a large crowd of people who were there to drink wine, get their fortunes read, learn about Henna art, and check out the paintings on the wall by Orlando artist Tina Foote – a crowd that Murphy said exceeded their initial expectations.

“These events have been going really, really well,” she said.  “In October when we did this, we put a table outside because the crowd was overflowing.”

It was also a happy event for Foote, who said it gave her an opportunity to present her work to a larger audience.

“Right now I’m working mostly in pastel, and getting into oil paintings as well,” Foote said.  “All the paintings are sensual women, in emotional situations.  Some of them are erotic, and touch on erotic situations.”

But they’re not intended, Foote said, simply for shock value or to be controversial, but for self-reflection.

”For me, they are extremely therapeutic,” she said. “There’s a lot of bondage. It kind of reflects the limitations put on us, or that we put on ourselves. Most of the paintings have a lot of emotion behind them, sadness and fear. There are stories behind all of them.”

Foote was raised in Upstate New York, and moved to Orlando in 1997. She now has a studio in her home, and has shown her work at galleries in Tampa and Atlanta.

“I’ve been painting women since I was 14,” she said. “By painting women, I’m wanting to create more of a story.  Most of them are more emotion than erotic – but they always seem to lead into being erotic by nature.”

Her artwork, she added, is also a passion for her.

“I can’t live without it,” she said.  “I can’t breathe without it.  I have to get my thoughts and feelings out.”

It’s also, Murphy said, about countering galleries that prejudge art like this as being crude or offensive — and forget there are other people who disagree.  Blissful Lotus wants to be a forum for artists who often can’t get their works shown in more traditional galleries for censorship reasons.

“Our goal is to host artists who have very sensual and erotic art,” Murphy said, “and it’s been very popular. What’s unfortunate, though, with sensual and erotic art is there are some galleries that will not show it. Many of the artists want to have a place for shows, but don’t.”

To learn more, call the boutique at 407-704-3357, or log on to www.theBlissfulLotus.Blogspot.com. The shop is at 1810 N. Orange Ave. in downtown Orlando.

To get a Tarot card reading from Rivera, call her at 407-435-3767.

Contact us at FreelineOrlando@Gmail.com.

Tea Party Chair recalls the hate speech she endured during her own campaign.

ORLANDO – One of the first things that Peg Dunmire thought of when she heard about the tragic shootings in Tucscon, Arizona that critically injured a local congresswoman was the final day of her own campaign for Congress last November. On that single day, Dunmire and her staff and supporters watched uncomfortably as four men followed them from one event to the next.

It was election day, and Dunmire — the Florida Tea Party’s candidate for the state’s 8th Congressional District — had posted her campaign schedule on her Web site that morning.

The tragic shooting in Tucson, Arizona prompted Peg Dunmire to recall the eerie events on the final day of her congressional race last November, when four men followed her to several campaign events.

As she and her staff traveled from one event to the next, they noticed the same four men following her everywhere they went.

“They got my schedule because I had released it that morning, where I was going to be on Election Day,” Dunmire said.  “They went to all my events.”

Finally, the staff got nervous enough that they contacted police. An officer approached one of the men to find out why he was following the candidate.

“You know what they said?” Dunmire recalled.  “They said, ‘Because she’s not a legitimate candidate.’ I think elections decide that.”

Saturday’s shooting of Arizona Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords and others at a supermarket parking lot in Tucson has set off a national debate about anger, violence and heated political rhetoric in American politics.

It’s not yet clear if the man arrested for the shooting, Jared Lee Loughner, had any clear political motive, but the case has put a spotlight on the issue of inflammatory political language, and spurred a number of lawmakers to question how they can protect themselves at public events — with a few promising they’ll carry weapons themselves from now on.

Another lawmaker, U.S. Rep. Carolyn  McCarthy, D-N.Y.,  announced she would introduce legislation aimed at banning the high-capacity ammunition clip used by the gunman in the Tucson shootings. McCarthy won a seat in Congress in 1996, three years after her husband was shot and killed, and her son seriously injured, during a shooting on a Long Island commuter train.

Dunmire, the chairman of the Florida Tea Party, said she understands how ugly campaign speech can get, noting that the stalkers who followed her on election day were symptomatic of anyone who disagreed with her views or platform, and responded as if her candidacy posed a threat.

“I ended up being subjected to the rhetoric of hate,” Dunmire said.  “It happened to me here. We need to understand this hostility is pervasive.”

On the day she got stalked, she recalled, “I wasn’t intimidated, but a lot of the people around me were.  Perhaps it should have been a little more intimidating when I think about what happened to Representative Giffords, because my sons repeatedly warned me that there are a lot of crazies out there.”

Still, Dunmire said the solution isn’t to push for new laws, including new gun control measures similar to the legislation Rep. McCarthy has proposed, or a suggestion by U.S. Rep. Bob Brady, D-Pa., on CNN that he’d draft a bill making it a crime to use words or images that looked violent or threatening to public officials.

“My concern is the opportunists will use this (assassination attempt) as a justification for taking away more of our freedoms, and clamping down on freedom of speech,” Dunmire said.

Candidates and incumbent lawmakers can’t turn every political event into a heavily armed, screened and guarded fortress, Dunmire said.

“Does this mean TSA-type body searches in order to just see your congressman?” she asked.  “This is what we don’t want to happen. The role of the government is to secure our rights.  The role of the government is not to make us safe.”

Dunmire ran for the seat then held by Democratic Congressman Alan Grayson. Both candidates lost to the Republican nominee, Dan Webster.

On Monday, Grayson issued a statement about his friendship with Giffords, who had served with him on the House Committee on Science and Technology.

“I’m going to let others comment on what this means for America,” Grayson said of the shootings.  “I just want to say what it means to me.”

He noted that Giffords’ D.C. office was one floor above his, and “I saw Gabby dozens, if not hundreds of times, during our two years together.  And nearly every time that I can remember, she was smiling.  Gabby is one of the most cheerful, charming and engaging people I have ever known.  She’s always looking on the bright side.  She has something good to say about pretty much everyone.  Bad news never lays a glove on her.  She loves life, and all the people in it.  No matter what is going on in your life, after fifteen minutes with Gabby, you’ll feel that you can touch the stars.”

Grayson noted that like himself, fellow Democrat Giffords faced a tough re-election battle, although she narrowly won.

“I always thought that if each of her constituents could spend that fifteen minutes with her, and see what she is really like, then she would win with 99.9% of the vote,” Grayson wrote.  “You would want her as your congressman, because you would want her as your friend.  I know nothing about the man who shot Gabby, and what was going through his mind when he did this.  But I will tell you this – if he shot Gabby out of hatred, then it wasn’t Gabby he was shooting, but rather some cartoon version of her, drawn by her political opposition.  Because there is no way – no way – that anyone who really knows Gabby could hate her or hurt her. She is a kind, gentle soul.”

He added, “My heart goes out to Mark Kelly, Gabby’s husband, and the many, many people who love her.  Gabby, we don’t want to lose you.  Please stay here with us.”

Contact us at FreelineOrlando@gmail.com.

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