County Court Judge John E. Futch knows he has a reputation as a "hanging judge,"
a throw-the-book-at-them type who dispenses justice swiftly and
harshly. But Futch, 56, who has been a county judge since 1988, says those who believe
that aren't seeing the full picture.
"I have the reputation of being a heartless beast," he said. "Nothing could
be further from the truth. I want to make a difference in people's lives, and I do."
He said his reputation changes, depending on who you ask about him.
Gloria Calhoun, who once appeared in court as the victim in a domestic violence case and
last week was there again to support a friend, has heard of Futch's reputation for being
"A lot of people have said, 'Don't go in front of Futch. If he gets mad with his
wife, you're going to jail. He'll send everyone to jail,' " Calhoun said.
But Calhoun said she found Futch to be fair.
"He (Futch) was terrific," she said. "He told me I should have come up and
let them see my face and my ex would have gotten way more time. He doesn't stand for
violence, especially against women, and he doesn't care too much for drugs either."
Futch said substance abuse is at the heart of most of the cases that come before him. When
he sentences someone with a substance abuse problem he gives them credit for jail time in
exchange for going to a treatment center.
Recently, a 19-year-old man was in court to be arraigned for possession of a small amount
of marijuana. He faced up to one year in jail, a fine and a revocation of his driver's
license. Instead, he got five days in jail and nine months of probation, he had to pay
court costs and perform 50 hours of community service, and he had to attend the Salvation
Army's substance abuse program.
Treatment centers make perfect sense to the judge, who believes they put abusers in places
where they can't hurt others and gives them a chance to recover.
"People who do that are usually motivated to change," he said.
Futch has many opportunities to affect the lives of the people who come to his courtroom.
Last year he saw half of the 11,064 criminal misdemeanor cases in Marion County. The other
half was divided between the other two county judges, who juggle other duties as well. The
cases range from traffic violations to possession of drugs and drug paraphernalia.
Futch said misdemeanor cases have increased 10 percent this year.
"We're in a position where three of us can't handle the number of cases," he
During arraignments one day last week, he spent 15 minutes explaining to almost 80 people
their rights and the court procedures. Before beginning with the cases he told the group
that he had no set standard for his judgments and doesn't let his mood affect what he
He moved through each case, spending 10 to 15 minutes on each one. Though serious in
addressing each case, he periodically flashed a humorous side.
"You're an adult, you're 19 years old, you know it all," Futch told a young
woman accused of possession of drug paraphernalia "I find the only person that knows
it all is my wife."
His peers described him as efficient, something he sometimes considers a flaw.
"I have a lot of character flaws, the biggest one being that I'm a
perfectionist," Futch said, adding that he expects the same from others.
"I want to do the best job I know how to do. I'm an individual that cares deeply
about the integrity of the system."
But Futch didn't always have such passion for the law. In fact, it wasn't even his first
career choice. His first choice was medicine, until a very difficult class in organic
chemistry made him reconsider.
Even after he decided to study law at the University of Florida, he thought he made a
mistake because it was all theory for the first few years.
It wasn't until he took a course with a mock court that his decision was validated.
"The first time I stood up in that courtroom I knew it was what I wanted to do,"
He followed the footsteps of his grandfather L.E. Futch, who was a Marion County judge
from 1921 to 1940.
Although Futch's father, L. Earl Jr., encouraged his only child to follow him in the
citrus business, the decision ultimately was his.
"Dad always encouraged me to do whatever I wanted to do," Futch said. "Law
just seemed natural."
After law school he worked for a law firm for a year. He later worked part-time for the
State Attorney's Office and then opened an office for what he calls a spectrum practice
that covered different aspects of civil law, including real estate, commercial litigation
Ocala attorney Charles Holloman worked with Futch when they were assistant state
attorneys. He said Futch was a very sharp prosecutor.
"He had very good presence in front of a jury," Holloman said. "It was like
he was a professional actor."
When his father died in 1982, Futch left his practice to run the family citrus farm in
"I loved being a gentleman farmer," Futch said.
But nature had other plans for Futch. Two killing freezes from 1983 to 1985 destroyed much
of the area's citrus business.
"When the dust settled I went back to what I know best, and that's law," Futch
He ran for county judge in 1986 and lost. Then, he went to work for the Public Defender's
office for a year and a half. He now says that experience was invaluable.
"You don't get that experience in private practice, nor the volume of work,"
Futch said. "I wanted to see how the system worked."
Stacy Youmans, who worked as a prosecutor in Futch's court for more than a year, said she
was intimidated by Futch at first because he had so much experience.
"Contrary to what some may say, he is extremely fair in his sentencing," Youmans
said. "There should be consequences when people break the law. He wants to deter
people from coming back to the system."
Assistant State Attorney Becky Fletcher said before handing down a sentence Futch places a
lot of emphasis on a defendant's criminal history and whether the person took
responsibility for their actions.
"When dealing with cases where you have to decide legal issues he's going to follow
what the law says," she said. "He doesn't go for what the prosecution or defense
Those who appeared before him last week got to decide for themselves if he was fair or if
the tale of the hanging judge was true.
"Two out of almost 80 went to jail that day," Futch said. "Does that sound
like I hang people?"