Not many stories bring me to my knees. But what happened to one 59-year-old woman appearing for a Broward County bond hearing in first-appearance court April 15 shot straight through my heart.
It is the story of one of Sandra Faye Twiggs' worst and last days on this earth.
It's also the story of a bullying circuit court judge, Merrilee Ehrlich, caught red-handed and black-hearted, refusing to allow wheelchair-bound Twiggs a moment to get a breathing treatment, refusing to consider her asthma and COPD as a condition of frailty, refusing to let her speak -- instead unleashing an entirely unwarranted "aggressive and tyrannical" tantrum.
You have to see it to believe it, and I hope you will.
This is the age of social media. Thank heaven the entire incident was captured on video and distributed everywhere in South Florida it needed to go. An excerpt is reproduced on this page.
Ehrlich has been on the bench in Broward County for 10 years. Fortunately, she won't be there even 10 minutes longer. Too many people saw, too many people responded. She resigned under pressure on Friday. Merrilee Ehrlich is gone.
That's the good news.
The bad news, the news that cut me to the bone, is that three days later -- uncontrollably disturbed by how Judge Ehrlich had attacked her and flailed her arms and yelled, interrupting even herself -- Sandra Faye Twiggs' lungs and heart gave out and she died.
Twiggs' goddaughter Carolyn Porter said that before her death, Twiggs “tried to tell us how they treated her, but she had anxiety, and every time she tried to talk about it, she couldn’t breathe.”
Broward Chief Administrative Judge Jack Tuter said Saturday Ehrlich will not return to the courthouse. She was scheduled to retire this summer and had filed her paperwork just a few weeks before the incident.
Tuter said he would contact Twiggs’ family to apologize personally.
“I am saddened and disappointed in the way Judge Ehrlich behaved on the video. Her behavior cannot be condoned,” he said.
Said Porter after viewing the video, "To see a person begging you for help and trying to talk to you and you treat them like a dog, for what reason?"
The judge was not interested in learning how Twiggs, a woman in poor health, had ended up in a wheelchair and in jail. When Ehrlich said the domestic dispute was over a fan, Twiggs' defense attorney said the conflict was more complicated than that but he never had much chance to explain because Ehrlich told him not to interrupt.
Twiggs had filed a restraining order against her 19-year-old daughter's boyfriend. She and her sister disapproved of him and were trying to protect her, according to news accounts. Ballard was living at her mother's home, but she had also been living with her aunt.
As the defense attorney and Ehrlich discussed the case, Twiggs began to cough and held her head. Ehrlich ordered someone to get her water, and when Twiggs tried to tell Ehrlich about her health care needs, Ehrlich shouted again.
"I am not here to talk about your breathing treatment ..." Then, to Twiggs' attorney, "I am not going to spend all day with her interrupting me."
Twiggs' sister Anna Twiggs, who found Sandra dead Wednesday morning, said her sister didn't have a criminal record and the experience affected her so much, she physically couldn't get over the court experience afterward.
Public Defender Howard Finkelstein said he had no idea how badly Twiggs was treated until he watched the video.
“What I saw there was somebody that is not mentally and emotionally fit to sit in judgment of human beings," the public defender said. "Nobody should suffer attacks like that.”
Finkelstein asked Tuter to remove Ehrlich from the bench, and in the letter he wrote to the chief judge Friday, he questioned Ehrlich's "lack of emotional fitness." Finkelstein described her treatment of Twiggs as "shocking and an embarrassment to Broward County."
He wrote, "Canon 3B.( 4) of the Code of Judicial Conduct provides that a 'judge shall be patient, dignified, and courteous to litigants. Her embarrassing demeanor yet again reveals that she lacks the civility and professionalism to sit on the bench."
Ehrlich was first elected in 2008. Her website lists her education at Oxford, Boston and Nova universities, and her experience as a law lecturer, mentor, volunteer, drug counselor and prosecutor. She also mentions the attributes that she believes a judge should have: "Wise and sensible, learned in the law and in life, honorable and humble, a lover of the truth, justice and people, and most of all, courageous."
Ehrlich displayed none of those attributes in the video I saw.
I've asked myself over and over what I would do if Sandra Faye Twiggs had been my mother, my sister, my friend -- anyone in my life I loved.
What would I have done -- what would I do now, after the fact -- if I'd seen her beg the court for a time-out to help herself breathe, yet the judge who had all the power over the moment failed to react with even a modicum of compassion, didn't want to know, wouldn't listen and virtually squashed her like a bug?
I think I might spend the rest of my life doing what I could to pull the weeds in the judiciary's overgrown garden. People often tell me indifference and callousness on the bench aren't outliers, they're the norm. But I don't think I ever took it as personally as I did when I viewed the video taken April 15 in Merrilee Ehrlich's courtroom.
I have no more words, frankly. Shame on the legal community if Sandra Faye Twiggs' story fails to start a conversation.