A Judge with compassion and character

Judge David Dugan, his wife Lorene (at left) and me at a Civilian-Military Annual Banquet in Cocoa Beach, Fl

David Dugan. I helped him get elected in 1998 to the bench of Florida’s 18th Judicial Circuit Court when he hired me to do his media relations earlier that year.

And now he’s retiring, 23 years later. Congratulations, Judge Dugan!

The following appeared in today’s edition of Florida TODAY, written by reporter John A. Torres

You’re not supposed to make friends with sources or the people you write about in my business.

Sometimes that can’t be helped.

Such is the case with Judge David Dugan, who retires this month after 23 years serving as one of Brevard County’s most respected Circuit Judges.

Dugan is such a humble guy that he absolutely insisted I not write this piece when we caught up recently over a glass of wine at FLORIDA TODAY’S Volunteer Recognition Awards. That was when I learned he’d be leaving the bench in just a few days.

I’ve sat through many trials and hearings in front of many different judges but it was clear that there was something different about Judge Dugan’s courtroom on the fourth floor of the Moore Justice Center in Viera.

In 2018, FLORIDA TODAY named Judge David Dugan the Volunteer of the Year for his work helping veterans, first responders and at-risk youth.

Maybe it was the way he listened, not just to attorneys but to those accused or even convicted of having committed terrible crimes. He treated everyone who appeared before him the same, giving courtesy, dignity and respect when perhaps he didn’t need to.

But that’s because he rarely thought people acted with evil in their heart. Instead, he believed they had succumbed to circumstances that snowballed out of control or acted under the sway of addiction or just made poor decisions committing crimes of opportunity.

His wife, Lorena, told me that in all his years, her husband only came across five defendants he thought were truly evil — and he wasn’t afraid to let them know how he felt.

Dugan graduated from Fletcher H.S. in Neptune Beach in 1971 and went on to the University of Florida where he graduated in 1975. He earned his law degree from Stetson University three years later and enlisted in the U.S. Army where he served as a Judge Advocate General (JAG) until 1981. He then set up private practice in Brevard County focusing on business and construction matters for 17 years before running successfully for a seat on the bench in 1998.

“Judge Dugan’s retirement will be felt by practitioners throughout Brevard County,” said Melbourne attorney Kepler Funk with Funk, Szachacz & Diamond. “During his judicial career, he exhibited the rare combination of caring, professionalism and an astute legal mind. Alan (Diamond), Keith (Szachacz) and I always covet practicing before judges with these three qualities and as a result, he will be missed. He has earned the privilege to retire but hope he will continue to lend his knowledge and talents to young lawyers as a mentor.”

I pressed Dugan for some career highlights and he mentioned a case that remains a career highlight for myself as well. The fact it took place at all is really a testament to Dugan’s professionalism. He received a motion from a an inmate serving a life sentence for murder. The prisoner, William Dillon, wrote the motion himself asking for DNA testing to be done on evidence in his case.

Dillon had been wrongfully arrested, convicted and spent 27 years in prison. The prosecutor’s office used fraudulent dog handler John Preston in the case as well as a notorious jailhouse snitch who testified against Dillon in exchange for help with a rape charge he was facing.

Dugan summoned Dillon to Brevard County for a hearing on the matter.

Judge David Dugan confers with Assistant Public Defenders Randall Moore. Mike Pirolo and Assistant State Attorney Rob Parker during the William Dillon case in 2008.

“Judge Dugan told him he should consider an attorney, hire one or get a court-appointed attorney,” said Chief Public Defender Michael Pirolo on my Murder on the Space Coast podcast. “That’s how I came in. I spoke with Mr. Dillon for a few moments in the holding cell. Judge Dugan gave me the option of adopting Dillon’s motion or getting some time to amend it and do some further research. That’s sort of how I first heard of Mr. Dillon, met Mr. Dillon.  It was more of Judge Dugan saying that this was a case he shouldn’t do on his own and should have some assistance and there you go.”

The rest, as they say, is history. A new trial was granted, Dugan ordered Dillon’s release on house arrest and then his subsequent release when the state realized they could no longer fabricate a case against Dillon a second time. In a side note, the real killers in the case were later identified by then-Sheriff Jack Parker.

Another of Dugan’s many highlights on the bench was establishing the Brevard County Domestic Violence Court in 1999.

“I’ve known Judge Dugan for almost 20 years,” Pirolo said this week. “In spite of having presided over many complex and difficult cases he always possesses integrity, compassion, and fairness. Basically he has been the model jurist. He also has a great sense of humor. I’ve never seen him succumb to outside pressure. He always ensured parties had their day in court and were heard.”

Judge David Dugan and Engagement Editor John A. Torres

It’s rare that an outgoing judge receives praise from both a public defender and a prosecutor but that’s the case here.

 “I didn’t always agree with his findings, rulings, etc.,  but I never walked away thinking I’d just got a crazy, horrible ruling,” said Assistant State Attorney Michael Doyle. “He called them as he saw them and that is exactly what every Judge is supposed to do.”

Judge Dugan even presided over Doyle’s wedding in 2017.

“I think I speak for the whole State Attorney’s Office and we wish him a long, happy, healthy retirement.  God knows he’s earned it,” Doyle said.

FILE PHOTO: Lorena Dugan and Judge David Dugan participating in the Buckaroo Ball, a charity event for Harmony Farms, in Cocoa.

Impressive as his work on the bench has been, it likely pales in comparison to all he has done for the Space Coast as a volunteer and active member of the community. He has coached youth sports, served as a Boy Scout leader from 1992 to 2001. He was the winner of the Summit of Seven “Man of the Year” Award in 2016, recognizing two decades of service to the organization. The Summit of Seven is an annual event designed to introduce teenagers and young adults to role models.

He was FLORIDA TODAY’s Volunteer of the Year in 2018 mainly with his tireless work with Space Coast Honor Flight, providing aging veterans a chance to visit the war memorials in Washington D.C. Dugan has served as president of his local rotary club, is a chamber member, chaired an Easter Seal campaign and so on.

I could go on and on but I don’t want my friend to get a swollen head.

Flaws to write about? Well, as Pirolo reminded me this week, Dugan is alleged to be a Boston Red Sox fan.

I guess no one is perfect.

Contact Torres at 321-242-3684 or at jtorres@floridatoday.com. You can follow him on Twitter @johnalbertorres or on Facebook at facebook.com/FTjohntorres.

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