UPDATE: Radio’s Rhett Palmer defends urging lighter prison sentence for Hatch

UPDATE: Thursday 4:47 p.m.

VERO BEACH — Radio talk show host Rhett Palmer stands by his plea for a lighter prison sentence for convicted Vero Beach embezzler Ira C. Hatch.

An attorney representing two victims of Hatch said they were “appalled” to hear that radio host Palmer asked the judge to show mercy.

Palmer was the only person to send a letter asking a judge to go easy on Hatch, court records show.The former Vero Beach attorney, who was accused of stealing $4 million from clients who used his escrow firm, accepted a racketeering plea deal and was sentenced to the maximum 30 years in prison.

Thursday afternoon, Palmer sent a statement to VeroNews.com defending his support of Hatch.

“I would rather err on the side of mercy and believe in the code that we should forgive the sinner but not the sin,” Palmer wrote.

Palmer explained that an article in VeroNews.com’s sister publication, Vero Beach 32963, prompted him to write to the court. The article quoted a victim as saying he would not be saddened if the 63-year-old Hatch’s sentence were to be cut short by his death in prison.

“Yes, Hatch’s actions have negatively affected the lives of many people, but this thirst for his death?  I believe it went too far,” Palmer wrote, adding, “This in no way diminishes the horrible crimes that have been perpetrated upon the victims and I am not, in any way, excusing or condoning his behavior.”

More than 20 victims testified Wednesday at the sentencing of Hatch, with no one speaking on behalf of leniency.  Instead, Palmer’s letter appeared to be the only call for a lesser sentence.

“Although we sympathize with Mr. Palmer’s attempt to call for the court to be ‘merciful’ in biblical terms, this letter and his analysis clearly misses the mark in legal terms and in terms of the overwhelming and tremendous harm caused by Hatch countywide,” said Attorney Buck Vocelle, who lost money himself and represented two other victims.

Palmer’s letter “is so shallow it would be comical and considered a joke if it were not submitted in such a serious proceeding,” Vocelle said in an email to VeroNews.com. 

Palmer’s letter, peppered throughout with Biblical references of forgiveness, pointed Senior Judge James Midelis’ to the charitable works Hatch had done over the years and attempted to paint a picture of Hatch as a model Christian.

“Please consider I never heard a mean tone or a bad word issue forth from this man’s lips,” Palmer’s letter reads. “He was, and I am sure still is, a kind man. He was a good father, a caring father, as I could tell, as an outsider, a faithful husband.”

“Is (Mr. Palmer) so naïve to think that all criminals are mean-spirited and foul mouthed?” Vocelle wrote. “What does Mr. Palmer think about a quiet, cold, deliberative and calculating thief quietly orchestrated a scheme to enable him to live a lifestyle he cannot afford at the expense of persons who could not afford to lose money he stole from them.”

Palmer closed his letter by referencing the well-known New Testament verse about a woman accused of adultery that was saved by Jesus from stoning.

“I wonder what the Lord would write about these vitriolic non merciful hearts who would utter their non-caring about Mr. Hatch’s early death?” Palmer wrote, then pressed the judge, “I ask you to favorably consider an unpopular stand of mercy.”

Palmer’s letter called to the attention of the court Hatch’s annual Christmas gatherings and the attorney’s support of various charities, including buying air time on Palmer’s show to benefit the nonprofits.

During the time that Ira and Marjorie Hatch hosted elaborate Christmas parties for clients at the River House, party guests often questioned in whispers how Hatch could afford to be such a generous host.

Left to speak on his own behalf in court, Hatch also detailed his many charitable activities and the causes he supported.

He spoke about serving in various volunteer capacities, making the Coastal Escrow and Hatch and Doty offices available as a drop-off point for Safe Space because the organization wanted to keep the shelter location a secret, and about supporting many fund-raising efforts and events as a sponsor and donor.

Hatch also commented on the large volume of pro bono legal work he did for local organizations over the years.

When Hatch was finished, the statements so outraged Assistant State Attorney Lev Evans that he asked to cross-examine Hatch.

“You supported these charities with these peoples’ money, right?” Evans said as he gestured out to the victims in the gallery.

“The way you phrased the question, you make it very tough to answer,” Hatch responded.

After the hearing, Evans said he felt that he needed to ask the questions — questions that the victims themselves could not ask of Hatch.

Evans said he thought the questioning of Hatch in public served a therapeutic purpose for the 50 or so victims in the room who would most likely never see a dime of their lost money.

“Because of its lack of depth and meaningless and nonsensical reasoning the last sentence of the letter, which reads ‘I pray this letter inspires true justice’ was right on the mark,” Vocelle said.  “True justice was not only inspired, but was rendered.”

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Read Rhett Palmer’s letter of support for Ira C. Hatch

Read Buck Vocelle’s response to Rhett Palmer’s letter

Read Rhett Palmer’s statement explaining his support

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Reporter Lisa Zahner contributed to this report.This article was originally posted at 1:36 p.m. Thursday.

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