MARIANNA, Fla. – Prosecutors in Florida said Tuesday they have dropped charges in 119 cases after finishing their review of arrests involving a former Jackson County deputy accused of planting drugs on motorists.
The charges involved everything from misdemeanor and criminal traffic offenses to felonies, including possession of methamphetamine and other controlled substances. All of the cases involved former Deputy Zachary Wester, who was fired Sept. 10 and remains under investigation by the Florida Department of Law Enforcement.
"We have completed the work we know about," said State Attorney Glenn Hess. "If additional information is received, we will follow that up. I have not received the FDLE report so I cannot say for sure that we are finished."
On Tuesday alone, some 49 cases were dismissed after a proceeding before Jackson County Judge Wade Mercer. The state began dismissing cases on Sept. 13 that either were initiated by Wester or heavily involved him.
Derek Blount, an assistant public defender, asked Mercer to set aside pleas and vacate sentences for the 40-some defendants, some of whom had more than one arrest involving Wester. After Mercer granted the motions in open court, Assistant State Attorney Laura Parish announced the state was dropping charges in all of the cases.
Mercer asked Blount whether there was any problem with his clients not being present in the courtroom, adding, “I can’t think of any prejudice.”
“Your honor,” Blount replied. “I’m waiving the presence of my clients being here. It’s to their benefit.”
“I think I agree totally,” Mercer said. “But (do) the clients even know about this?”
“No, sir, probably not,” Blount said. “Because some of these are closed and we’re unable to get in contact. Our addresses, phone numbers have changed from the intake sheet. Some of them plead first appearance and that’s the only contact we have for them.”
“I cannot imagine a situation where they would not want you to make this motion on their behalf,” Mercer said.
For seven solid minutes, Blount read all 49 names and case numbers into the record. Mercer said he’d sign orders in the set-aside pleas and vacated sentences after the hearing.
The explosive charges against Wester came to light last week in reporting by the Tallahassee Democrat. In addition to the dropped charges, Jackson Circuit Judge Christopher Patterson ordered a number of state inmates — at least five as of last week — to be released from correctional facilities across North Florida, brought back to Jackson County and released.
State Attorney Jack Campbell said his office last week began reviewing Wester-related cases out of Liberty County. Wester worked for the Liberty County Sheriff's Office from August 2015 to May 2016 before joining the Jackson County Sheriff's Office.
Last week, Hess announced his office was reviewing more than 250 cases involving Wester. He told the Democrat he "lost confidence" in Wester after watching body camera footage of Wester arresting an Alford woman earlier this year for possession of meth.
In the video, Wester can be seen with a plastic baggie in his hand before conducting his search of the woman's pickup truck. Prosecutors dropped drug charges against the woman last week.
A reporter asked Blount about the Wester mess after the court proceeding.
"We’re just pursuing justice," he said, "trying to do everything we can."
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