Judge Vaughn looks forward to retirement after lengthy career

OKEECHOBEE — 19th Circuit Court Judge Dan Vaughn is looking forward to retirement.

His last day in Okeechobee County Court was Dec. 22. He plans to finish the rest of his term on the bench in St. Lucie County.

Judge Vaughn was born in Coral Gables, Fla., on Aug. 30, 1958. His family then moved to Fort Pierce. He attended John Carroll High School with his twin brother Sam and younger brother Jim.

“An interesting factoid, while we were there, we won the state championship in golf, that’s my claim to fame,” the judge said in a humbled and enamored way.

Judge Dan Vaughn

The judge then attended undergraduate school at the University of Georgia in Athens, Georgia and graduated in June of 1980 with a major in Public Administration from the College of Arts and Sciences on campus. Judge Vaughn attended Cumberland Law School at Sanford University in Birmingham, Ala. and graduated in May of 1983.

Judge Vaughn remembers: “My taste for law occurred when I was in the ninth grade in high school.” It was at this time that his mother worked at the state attorney’s office in Fort Pierce. “They were having a murder trial down there and she asked if I wanted to go watch it in Fort Pierce. I said ‘Can I get out of school to go?’ and she said ‘Yeah’ and I said ‘Well, I’ll go watch it then.

“So I went down there for, what I recall, two or three days and watched it, and was fascinated by it. This fella, his name was Gerard Schaeffer, had kidnapped and killed two hitch-hiking girls from Broward County, took them out on Hutchinson Island and actually tied them up tortured, raped and killed them. He was caught and the trial was going on and I was just fascinated by it. I thought it was the coolest thing I had ever seen, watching the lawyers go back and forth, so that’s what got me interested in it,” he recalled.

“When I was in high school I said ‘I think I want to try to be a lawyer’ because I thought that was really cool and I didn’t know what else I was going to do anyway,” the judge jested.

Judge Vaughn turned his attention back to his trial experience when he stated, “He (Schaeffer) received the death penalty back then by Judge C. Pfeiffer Trowbridge. His sentence was commuted to life by the U.S. Supreme Court decision that outlawed the death penalty at that time throughout the United States, as it was unconstitutional. He was killed in prison a few years after that, so anyways, that’s what happened to him.”

After his graduation from Cumberland Law School at Sanford University on May 15, 1983, Judge Vaughn started work June 1 of that same year practicing law at the state attorney’s office in Fort Pierce for approximately three months. His law practices brought him to Okeechobee in the fall of 1983 where he spent about eight to nine months under Judge William L. Hendry.

He then returned to Fort Pierce where he prosecuted misdemeanor cases, before he worked felony cases in Indian River and St. Lucie counties over a period of five and a half years.

“I did everything from spitting-on-sidewalk cases at the beginning to death penalty stuff at the end,” he said. “You name it and I did it. That’s why it’s a great experience working there.”

Judge Vaughn ran for St. Lucie County judge in the summer of 1990, was elected at the beginning of September 1990 and began serving as a St. Lucie County judge in January 1991. “I did that for almost 10 years. The guy I ran against in St. Lucie County had been there for a long time and had gotten into some legal trouble. I thought I could run against him and do a better job and I had a chance, I thought, if I worked hard to beat him. I was only 31-years-old and thought well I’m gonna try it, it was an opportunity. Nobody else was gonna run against him. So I decided to do it and I was fortunate enough to win and been doing it ever since. I then applied for a circuit court position and was appointed by Governor Jeb Bush in February of 2000 to the circuit court bench and have been in circuit court for almost 18 years. So altogether, 26-27 years, something like that I’ve lost count,” and “While I’ve been in circuit court I’ve done felonies, probate, some juvenile, family and civil cases,” Judge Vaughn articulated.

As a 19th Judicial Circuit Court Judge, Judge Vaughn came out to Okeechobee in 2003 for a year in the historic courthouse building in front of the Okeechobee County Judicial Center that was under construction at the time. He then went back to Indian River and St. Lucie counties before his return to an Okeechobee bench presiding over criminal, family and mental health cases. Judge Vaughn’s family has ties to Okeechobee noting that his father worked for Hector Feed Mills for 30 years, that they spent a lot of time in Okeechobee and stating his dad “loved it out here.”

When asked how his early days as a trial lawyer compared to current practices, Judge Vaughn responded, “Things seem a lot more complicated now than they were back then, but maybe it’s just my imagination. More laws, more things that you have to remember to do, such as designating sexual predators, there’s just more stuff you have to do it seems like than there was back in the day.” As a person whose occupation is to remain objective, he comically proceeded to acknowledge his own biases, ”Of course, back then I was younger, more energetic and less cynical than I am now.”

The common complaint from jury panels usually involves them having to wait in the jury room before they come up for jury selection, Judge Vaughn relayed and understood. “It’s a fair complaint because sometimes they do sit down there too long,” he said. “Most people on juries like doing it once they get selected. They’re fine with sitting on it and most of them find it interesting once they get in here. It’s not like TV, so it’s not a drama and not as interesting as “C.S.I.” or all those other things, but I think most of them enjoy their experience because it shows them the workings of the criminal justice system in the real world not TV. So I’m really cognizant of that and try to get them up here pretty quickly.”

Regarding expert witness testimonies over the years, the judge said that he’s seen some really good ones, “whether it be medical examiners, Deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA), fingerprints, firearms, forgery, or handwriting. When DNA first got perfected in the late 80s, it really helped convict the guilty and exonerate the innocent. Science and math not being my strong point, these guys could calculate into the billions the chances of it not being your DNA at the crime scene. They are able to exclude everybody else on the planet times 10 that’s your DNA, unless you’re an identical twin. It’s amazing what they can get DNA out of. They can get it off the root of your hair, saliva off cigarette butts, I had a murder case here years ago where the defendant had licked an envelope and sealed it. They were able to get his DNA from his saliva off the tape of the inside of the envelope.

Your DNA can be retrieved a zillion different ways. Over the years they have perfected it more and gotten more precise with it. For several years now, we have been required to get a DNA sample from everybody who is sentenced in court. They take them over to the jail, DNA them and send it to Florida Department of Law Enforcement (FDLE).” Judge Vaughn explained that when a person is in prison, their DNA is put in a database, so if they commit an offense in the future and their DNA is found, law enforcement can match it.

“Everybody’s DNA who is sentenced in courts across Florida goes into a giant FDLE database, and in fact they’ve caught people committing rape by matching their DNA in the database.”

As an outgoing judge, Judge Vaughn was asked his opinion on the death penalty to which he expressed, “The death penalty is a law like any other law, but of course it’s more significant than most laws. To me, the U.S. Supreme Court and appellate courts keep changing the rules on us. Usually the law and death penalty stuff is so incremental and slowly changed you can keep up with it, but recently in the Hurst decision they’ve changed it so much.”

The decision from Hurst v. Florida found Florida’s system for sentencing people to death was unconstitutional because it gave too much power to judges. “So a lot of these individuals are gonna have new sentencing proceedings, where the jury has to recommend death by unanimous vote of 12-0,” Judge Vaughn said.

“For example, the U.S. Supreme Court approved Florida’s procedure in death penalty cases for probably over 40 years and then all of a sudden in the Hurst decision they said ‘no it’s unconstitutional.’ So for 40 years we’ve followed the rules, that we were obligated to follow, that they approved, and in fact people have been executed under the old Florida scheme or procedure. We’ve executed these people over the years, but now all of a sudden it’s unconstitutional. That’s what’s frustrating about it. If they would just tell us what the rules are we’ll follow the rules, and we have, but they change them where they say things that have been constitutional for 40 years now all of a sudden are not constitutional,” the judge continued about the obscured headaches faced by individuals involved.

When he’s not presiding on the bench, the soon-to-be retired judge enjoys playing golf, loves watching and attending college football games and hanging out with his kids who he says are “real athletic, they like to play baseball, football and golf.” As far as his last day on the bench is concerned Judge Vaughn is not sure exactly but expects it to be about a year from now. When he does in fact retire, Judge Vaughn intends to play a lot of golf and do a little traveling out west to possibly the Colorado area, as he has never been out there.

Judge Vaughn concluded his interview with a statement about his career and how he approached it, “I’ve always wanted to hang in there and do as well as I could. I try to treat people the way I’d like to be treated. I know most people that come in the courtroom are nervous, scared or worried and I tried not to intimidate them or anything like that.”

Thank you Judge Vaughn for your public service to the community of Okeechobee and best wishes on your future endeavors.

Judge Michael C. Heisey will take over Judge Vaughn’s former courtroom in Okeechobee in 2018.

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