A felon at 17, Limia now hopes to prosecute juvenile offenders in order to help them turn their lives around
By Jan Pudlow
When Veronica Limia gathered her juvenile record and every arrest report and had them copied and bound, it was as thick as a book.
It tells the story of the angry daughter of a drug- dealing father and an alcohol-abusing mother who was basically left to fend for herself at the age of 11.
Fast forward through many rebellious domestic and school fights later, when at 17 she broke into a house and ended up prosecuted as an adult for burglary and grand larceny. A convicted felon, she served 18 months behind razor wire at the now defunct Florida Institute for Girls and was set free on her 19th birthday.
When the next chapter of her story is written, Limia, now a 27-year-old law student at Florida International University, is hoping for a happy ending.
Next year, she is counting on this moving scene starring 15th Circuit Judge Ronald Alvarez, the juvenile judge she appeared before many, many times in Courtroom 2-A at the Palm Beach County Courthouse: He will swear her in as a new Florida lawyer, and she will get a job as a prosecutor in juvenile court, where she hopes to make sure troubled kids receive the structure, therapy, and help they need to turn their lives around, too.
“When you are admitted to The Florida Bar, I doubt that there will be any other lawyer that can say that in another life they had been committed to one of the Florida Department of Juvenile Justice’s most secure programs and know first-hand the issues and concerns of children that they represent,” Judge Alvarez wrote to Limia a year ago, in a letter to help her get into law school.
“I am as proud of you as I am of my own children, of whom I am very, very proud. . . . One of my greatest professional accomplishments will be when you appear before me and I address you as ‘counsel.’”
Many years earlier, Judge Alvarez wrote another letter, one Limia will never forget, with words so sincere and caring it was as if she’d been tossed a lifeline in stormy seas.
The letter from the judge came after her first arrest for domestic violence.
“I never punched my mother. I would just push her off of me. She was abusive. The problem was when the police came, I had an ‘F-you attitude.’ I was mad at the world and I was mad at the police, too. They would automatically side with my mother, like ‘No wonder you are treating her that way,’” Limia explained.
“On that first charge, Judge Alvarez sentenced me to write him a letter three times a week and tell him what I did that day. I was mad. I looked at it as punishment.”
While on probation, Limia dutifully, if begrudgingly, wrote the judge letters.
When her mother’s new boyfriend tackled her to the floor and got on top of her, Limia said, “I flipped out and finally got free and called the police and locked myself in the bathroom. When the police came, they asked him if they wanted to file charges against me!”
That’s when her mom sent her to live with her dad, who had financial problems and got evicted and moved every two months. Limia remembers sleeping on the couch, and said her dinner would be a spoonful of peanut butter and a spoonful of jelly, “while my mom was eating steak and lobster.”
“I remember being so hungry I cried,” Limia said.
Then, her beloved dog was attacked.
“I was feeling abandoned and depressed and hungry,” Limia recalled. And she wrote about it all to Judge Alvarez.
One day, she was shocked to find a letter from Judge Alvarez in her mailbox on 15th Judicial Circuit letterhead.
“I thought, ‘Oh no! What did I do? Did I violate again? Did he not get my letters?’ When I opened it, it was a handwritten letter. He wrote showing concern for my dog and for me. I remember sitting there thinking, ‘He cares?’ You look at judges as the most high, almost holy in the system. Your honor. And you wouldn’t picture them to take time out of their day to handwrite me a letter.”
Judge Alvarez says Limia has taught him this lesson as a juvenile court judge: “Kids really do want to be noticed, and, if they are noticed by the right people, they will see their importance in life and their value in life. It’s reinforced in me that if you treat everybody like you want to be treated, you get some fantastic results. I remember being a teenager and how some adults treated me.”
Limia attributes her turnaround not only to Judge Alvarez, but to staff members in detention centers who became her second family, like mothers and aunts, and a special therapist, Rose Green, who finally broke down the walls built around her heart.
“It took six months for me to talk to Miss Green. I would play games with therapists. When they asked, ‘What do you want to be when you grow up?’ I would answer: ‘A drug dealer, like my dad.’”
Eventually, Limia said she was able to learn this about herself: “I am a very sensitive person, and it’s easy to hurt me. And when I get hurt, I act out in anger.”
She had to change her thought process, her drinking-and-smoking habits, and her friends. She knows now that “the worst kids in the detention center put a mask on to protect themselves” and that “children want structure. They might rebel and act like they don’t want it. But they do.”
Noting that Limia has gone to detention centers to talk to juveniles charged with crimes, Judge Alvarez said: “She has never turned her back on these kids that are walking in the shoes that she walked in.”
When she talks about her time in secure lockup when she should have been in high school picking out her dress for the prom, Limia said: “I wouldn’t change it for anything. It molded me. It put me in line to help a lot of people. It gave me understanding and the intelligence and ability to make it through law school. Coupled with my experiences, I will have the power to help a lot of people,” Limia said.
After getting her GED, Limia got a softball scholarship at Palm Beach Community College, earned her bachelor’s degree in business management at Florida Atlantic University, and even went to work for her mom as a receptionist where her mother had risen to a chief financial officer.
“We still bump heads,” Limia says, but she loves her mother now and admires her for being a “great businesswoman.”
Her first year in law school was at Florida Coastal in Jacksonville, where they offered her a $5,000 scholarship.
“Out of 600 first-year students, I was in the top 13 percent. I made the dean’s list and had a 3.3 GPA. I went there with that purpose of proving myself,” Limia said.
But her first choice was always FIU, where she could live closer to her family, especially to help her sister, who she says is addicted to painkillers, and her 3-year-old niece.
“When I wrote to FIU and applied for a transfer, I told them: ‘You denied me the first time. I don’t give up that easily. I have proven myself as a worthy law student,’” Limia said.
She had a summer internship at the circuit court, where she would sneak over to that all-too-familiar Courtroom 2-A where Judge Alvarez still holds court.
Recently, Judge Alvarez invited her to speak at the Juvenile Assessment Center, and Lloyd Comiter, a Boca Raton attorney, and his 13-year-old son were in the audience, participating in the Citizen’s Criminal Justice Academy sponsored by the Palm Beach County Criminal Justice Commission. They were both moved to tears, along with most everyone in the room.
Comiter recounted several points of her story:
“First, the juvenile justice system does work. Second, we adults should take the time to listen to our children, be a part of their lives, and care for them. Third, we adults do have a profound effect on the children and the children do look up to us. . . .
“If there is a new award category, such as ‘Law Student Inspiration Award,’ Ms. Limia should be the inaugural nominee for this award. Her success story is an inspiration to all who will listen. We adults will have much to learn from her.”
She’s hired an attorney to help make sure everything goes smoothly through the character and fitness process with the Florida Board of Bar Examiners.
To anyone who may say a convicted felon should not become a lawyer, Limia answers: “Am I a criminal? No, I was a kid crying out for help. I was lost in the world. I think my accomplishments have spoken for themselves. A lot of kids in law school, their parents are judges and lawyers and doctors. Where they started at the middle ground, I started behind them with something to prove. I have accomplished that. I don’t think I should be judged by my record.”
Judge Alvarez definitely believes Limia should have a shot at practicing law.
“I just can’t wait for the day I can swear her in. I’m excited for her, for the realization of what she did when everything was against her and what she could accomplish. That’s just the starting point of what she can accomplish for other human beings. What a tremendous thing! We see kids who do OK, and we see kids who fail. She is such an example of a kid who can turn around their life, when they mature and when they get assistance.
“If we don’t forgive and forget when people pay their debt to society, then we take the attitude that the criminal justice system is just a revenge model,” Judge Alvarez said. “Will society and the [bar examiners] be as mature as she is?”