BY DIANA MOSKOVITZ
The state's highest court has ordered a hearing to determine the veracity of allegations that a Broward judge and prosecutor had improper conversations about a death penalty case outside the courtroom.
If true, the allegations potentially could affect the death sentence of Omar Loureiro, who was convicted of first-degree murder in 2007. The case was prosecuted by former Assistant State Attorney Howard Scheinberg in front of Circuit Judge Ana Gardiner.
Last year, prosecutor and Sunrise City Commissioner Sheila Alu came forward saying she had heard Gardiner and Scheinberg joking about the murder trial while at dinner, while the trial was ongoing.
The allegations arose during Loureiro's appeal, which has reached the Florida Supreme Court.
On March 31, the court ordered an evidentiary hearing -- outside of Broward County -- to weigh the allegations before Loureiro's full appeal is finished.
The case has been assigned to Palm Beach Circuit Judge Lucy Chernow Brown. No hearing date has been set yet.
Gardiner has since been transferred from the criminal section, and now is hearing civil cases. Scheinberg now is a private lawyer. Loureiro, 46, remains in custody at Florida State Prison in Raiford.
A jury convicted Loureiro in March 2007 of fatally stabbing 57-year-old James Lentry in 2001, after the two had sex.
Michael Tenzer, Loureiro's lawyer during the initial trial, said he believed the Supreme Court has done the right thing.
''If they are true,'' Tenzer said of the allegations, ``I would suspect that something should be done.''
Bruce Lyons, Scheinberg's lawyer, said his client still disputes Alu's allegations.
''Obviously, there seems to be a discrepancy between what is alleged to have taken place by Sheila Alu and the other participants,'' he said.
In an affidavit, Alu said that she did not come forward about the conversation until after the trial because she feared endangering her legal career and didn't know who to alert. When the alleged transgression happened, Alu was not a lawyer.
Alu said that on March 23, 2007, she was at a restaurant when Gardiner called her over and asked Alu to join her. Gardiner told Alu: ''I am with someone I should not be with,'' the affidavit stated.
Eventually, Gardiner, Scheinberg and Circuit Court Judge Charles Kaplan joined Alu and her friends.
Alu stated in the affidavit that she heard Gardiner and Scheinberg joke about the defendant being gay. They also talked about a juror who passed out after seeing photographs during trial.
Alu, concerned about the conversation, told Scheinberg what she had heard. He responded by telling her that if she felt he had broken a code of ethics, then she was obligated to report her concerns to the Florida Bar, the affidavit stated.
Alu also shared her concerns with Gardiner, the document stated.