JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – The judge hearing the case against the man Jacksonville Sheriff's Office considers the prime suspect in the disappearance of 21-month-old Lonzie Barton has removed herself from the case due to a conflict of interest. After the hearing, Ruben Ebron got a rare visit in jail.
Monday's hearing for Ruben Ebron was set to schedule court dates to hear pending motions from Ebron's lawyers for a gag order, a change of venue and a protective order to seal evidence in the case. But instead, Judge Marianne Lloyd Aho recused herself from the case. She cited that she used to work in the same law office as the attorney for WJXT, Ed Birk, who was in court to argue against the motions.
COURT DOCUMENTS: Judge's order of recusal
The chief judge Mark Mahon will reassign another judge to the case. A new hearing was set for 9 a.m. Oct. 8.
"I think the judge did the right thing because she is relatively new and she has been guided, so to speak, by the prosecution," Wanda Ebron, Ruben Ebron's mother, said.
Ebron remains in jail without bond. He is facing two child neglect charges connected to Lonzie's disappearance. He's also charged with possession of a handcuff key, introducing contraband into the jail and conspiracy to escape. All five charges are considered felonies. He is also charged with one count of lying to police, which is a misdemeanor.
At a hearing last week, Judge Aho agreed with a prosecution motion to limit Ebron's jail visitation, including baring visits with his parents, who are on the defense witness list.
After Monday's hearing, Nathaniel Williams, Ebron's uncle and the only member of his family allowed to visit the defendant in jail, went to see his nephew. Williams described Ebron as being in good spirits and said that he understands why his lawyers are seeking a gag order in the case. He doesn't understand why the media is fighting to release evidence and witness statements before the trial.
Williams said he doesn't believe Ebron harmed Lonzie and says the media is portraying him all wrong -- he's not the violent monster that police have made him out to be.
"Many times he's painted to be something he's not," Williams said.
During their visit, he said he told Ebron to stay focused on the charges that he's facing.
"I stand behind him 100 percent," Williams said. "He's my nephew and I love him, I told him to his face, if I felt, at any time, that he had actually done something like that, then the support I gave him would not be there because he would be a different person. So the person that I support right now is the nephew that I know, and I love."
Defense motions pending
Ebron's attorneys want a judge to place a protective order on the case, which would keep certain information and evidence from being released to the media and public before a trial.
The defense also wants Ebron's trial moved out of Jacksonville. His lawyers said they believe it will be difficult to find an impartial jury because of all of the pre-trial coverage.
COURT DOCUMENTS: Pending defense motions in case of State vs. Ruben Ebron
"They want to restrict the state and the police from being able to talk about the facts in this case and it's so unusual because we've seen the police and the state actually give a lot of information to the public about this case, and typically they don't do that," said local attorney Rhonda Peoples-Waters, who's not associated with the case. "It is very rare. One of the last cases we had was the State vs. Dunn case. That one was a very highly publicized trial. But again it was not moved."
Ebron could face at least 50 years in prison if convicted of all charges against him.
The trial will begin as soon as a jury is chosen. Jury selection is set for Dec. 7.
As for if and when Ebron or someone else could face charges in the presumed death of Lonzie, another lawyer not affiliated with the case said that may come in time.
"At some point in time this case will continue long enough in order for (State Attorney Angela) Corey's office to make that final determination "do we have enough evidence?" attorney Gene Nichols said. "Typically you hear that you need a body, but that's not necessarily true. She can prosecute the case without a body, but at some point in time I would expect that someone, either Mr. Ebron, his girlfriend, his girlfriend's husband, somebody is going to share something with the sheriff's office that will finally let them crack this case."