After being arrested and charged with felony aggravated assault with a firearm – claiming he’d done nothing wrong defending his home – former Vero mayor Craig Fletcher could have let his circumstances drag him down, but instead he’s grateful, and focused on what’s next.
“After all of this is over, I want to get involved with the veterans organization,” he said last week in the corridor of the Indian River County Courthouse after his monthly date before the judge who oversees his case in the county’s special Veterans Court, adding that he’d like to give back by helping other veterans who find themselves in a similar, unfortunate position.
“It’s been really interesting seeing the way our legal system works from this perspective, from the other side,” Fletcher said.
During his eight years on the Vero Beach City Council including two stints as mayor, Fletcher helped craft and pass local laws, enforcement mechanisms, fines and penalties, but he never thought he’d be contemplating a criminal trial or prison. “What would they do with me at 78 years old?” he said, shrugging.
Even though Fletcher’s case has been heavily publicized, he doesn’t seem to harbor any ill will toward the media. He developed a pretty thick skin during his years running for and serving in elected office, taking his fair share of lumps at City Hall where at one point he was the subject of a failed recall petition effort.
Five years after departing his council seat, Fletcher still seems sharp, not at all confused about what was happening, and he’s still got his dry and slightly nerdy wit. But last week after leaving court he did appear a bit shell-shocked, tired and humbled by what he has been through since an armed confrontation with a landscape contractor on his front porch on March 29 landed him in jail overnight facing serious felony charges.
“To me as an engineer, I’m used to dealing with things having to always be exact, but the courts are a very imprecise system,” Fletcher said.
Criminal court is definitely not like designing rockets, strategic missile systems and nuclear warheads, which is what Fletcher did during part of his career, after serving one tour in Vietnam in the U.S. Army and graduating college with flight school under his belt and with a degree in aeronautical engineering.
Almost anything can and does happen in court. Bonds can be set high or low. Rulings and jury verdicts can go either way. Proceedings can happen lightning fast or drag on interminably. Witnesses’ recollections can get foggy and stories can change. What seems like a sure thing or a slam-dunk case can devolve into a big question mark. Having a good lawyer helps a lot, but there are still no guaranteed outcomes.
Fletcher caught a big break from that cloud of uncertainty when his case was sent to Veterans’ Court, a diversion program that closely monitors defendants and partners them with fellow military veterans to navigate their compliance with the court’s requirements, as a form of probation.
When he entered the program, Fletcher pled “nolo contendre” to his charge and signed a contract with the court. If he holds up his end of the bargain, at the conclusion of the arrangement, the charges against him go away.
Now Fletcher checks-in with Judge Cynthia Cox or her designee periodically to report that he’s fulfilling every element of his agreement. He must show up for all meetings and court dates and submit to random drug and alcohol testing. He can’t own firearms, hang out in bars or knowingly associate with felons. And if he’s charged with another crime during the designated timeframe, the deal is off and he’ll be re-arrested, with bond revoked.
He can’t leave the county without permission and he can’t move his residence without notifying the court – not likely as the third-generation Vero native and wife Arlene have lived in the same home in McAnsh Park for 27 years.
The Veterans’ diversion program is less formal than traditional felony court and Fletcher’s defense attorney Andy Metcalf need not be present, as Fletcher is free to speak on his own behalf now when he goes before the judge. “No more lawyers,” Fletcher said, relieved to be removed from his previous adversarial relationship with the state.
“Veteran’s Court has been a major success story in Florida,” said Metcalf, who is based in Vero. “Mr. Fletcher’s entry into the program represents a fair compromise by both the state and the defense.”
“Once he completes the diversion program, the charges pending against him will be dismissed. He will then qualify to have this matter expunged from his record,” Metcalf said. “Along the way Mr. Fletcher will be working alongside other veterans who have proudly served in the armed forces. Mr. Fletcher has lived a life of public service and is deserving of this program and what it has to offer.”
Should the matter have gone forward to trial, Metcalf had said he was planning to mount a “stand your ground” defense under Florida law.
“Although Mr. Fletcher had a clear defense in this case, this program affords him the opportunity to forego the risk of litigation in the criminal justice system, which doesn’t always get things right,” Metcalf said.