Will Casey Anthony be forced back to Florida? Case is a 'mess,' judge says.

Judge Perry hears arguments about whether Casey Anthony, out of jail after her acquittal, has to return to Florida to serve a year of probation from a check-fraud case.

Joe Burbank/AP
Casey Anthony's defense team, Jose Baez and Cheney Mason, confer with chief judge Belvin Perry during the hearing at the Orange county courthouse on Friday. Perry is deciding whether Casey Anthony has to return to Florida to serve probation for check fraud. Anthony did not attend the hearing.

A Florida judge is weighing whether Casey Anthony should serve a year of probation for a 2010 check-fraud conviction now that she has been released from jail after her acquittal last month on murder charges.

Chief Judge Belvin Perry heard arguments on Friday in Orlando over a corrected sentence issued last week by the judge who presided over the check-fraud case.

Judge Stan Strickland, acting on his own without notice to prosecutors or defense lawyers, amended the written version of his January 2010 sentencing order to include the requirement that Ms. Anthony serve one-year of supervised probation upon her release from jail.

The order was significant because Ms. Anthony is the target of multiple threats – including threats against her life. She is believed to be living outside Florida and has been maintaining a low profile since her July 17 release.

Judge Strickland’s order required her to return to Orlando and register her current address in a file that would become public record.

What is unusual about the order is that according to the Probation Department, Anthony already served her full year of probation while being held in pretrial detention prior to her murder trial.

Anthony’s lawyers attacked Judge Strickland’s order as evidence of judicial bias. Strickland had been slated to preside over Anthony’s murder trial but stepped aside after defense lawyers accused him of bias then, too.

“This was a vindictive sentence based on his disapproval of the jury’s finding [in the murder case],” Defense Attorney Lisabeth Fryer told Judge Perry.

Anthony’s acquittal sparked outrage among many trial watchers across the country – including a significant segment of the population in central Florida. Strickland, like other Florida judges, must stand for election to retain a seat on the bench.

Shortly after the Anthony verdict, Strickland appeared on the Nancy Grace television program. He said he was “surprised” by the outcome. He added: “I guess I’m just shocked. We opened a big can of justice, didn’t we.”

Judge Perry brushed aside suggestions that Strickland acted with an improper motive.

He said it was clear from the transcript of the sentencing hearing that Strickland sentenced Anthony to serve a year of probation “upon release.”

But that requirement was not recorded in the written order.

Faced with ambiguous instructions from the judge, the Probation Department decided that it had to initiate probation at the conclusion of her jail sentence. Strickland sentenced Anthony to 412 days in jail and then declared that she’d already served the full 412 days while awaiting the murder trial.

The only remaining issue was when her year-long probation would start. The judge said “upon release” in the hearing, but the written order did not include that instruction.

Under Florida law a judge is authorized to change an illegal sentence at any time. But Ms. Fryer said Friday that Strickland’s original sentencing order was not an illegal sentence. To the contrary, she said, the 2010 order was a legal sentence that merely contained a scrivener’s error.

Had the judge sought to correct the error as probation was beginning in early 2010, he would have the authority to amend the order. But not now, she said.

“This is well beyond that,” Fryer told the judge. “Her probation is already terminated.”

Fryer said Strickland lacked the necessary jurisdiction to take action in Anthony’s check-fraud case because Anthony had already completed her sentence in full. For the judge to act unilaterally to reopen Anthony’s case, amend her sentence, and order her to appear in Orlando, exceeds the judge’s authority and raises due process and double jeopardy issues, the lawyer said.

Assistant State Attorney Frank George was present at Anthony’s 2010 sentencing. The question arose of whether Strickland could sentence Anthony to probation “upon release.” The concern was that such an order might result in an indeterminate – and thus illegal – sentence.

Mr. George offered the suggestion that Anthony’s probation could be served during her pretrial detention while awaiting the murder trial.

The prosecutor took a different position on Friday before Perry. “The state believes that it is bad public policy to allow someone to serve probation while in custody,” he said. “The point of probation is to assist in a person’s reintegration into the community.”

George rejected the defense claim that the corrected order raised double jeopardy issues. He said the one-year probation order was merely the correction of a clerical error and had no punitive effect.

At the conclusion of the hearing, Perry told counsel that the disputed issue was a “mess.”

“I just don’t know the answer at this time. I just don’t,” the judge said. “You have given me a lot to think about.”

Perry did not say when he might rule. A court spokesperson said a decision may be issued next week.

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