John Goodman prosecutor Ellen Roberts set to retire reflects on career, high-profile cases

Roberts leaving post after 26 years of cases

WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. -- Prosecutor Ellen Roberts gained a reputation as a plain spoken, hard charging prosecutor in Palm Beach County who did not blink when Wellington Millionaire John Goodman put together a dream team in his DUI.

On Thursday, Roberts career as a assistant state attorney will come to an end.

Roberts still has a lot of packing to do in her 3rd floor office. She has nearly three decades of files, letters and most important to her, memories.

"It has been 26 incredible years. I don't feel like it was a job," said Roberts.

To Roberts, the courtroom has been her second home.

Ask anyone who has worked with Roberts and they will say the prosecutor is a "firecracker." She has a laugh that permeates a courthouse and a ferocity in her work that is equally as loud.

Roberts was 41-years-old when she started her career and her hard-lined focus surfaced early.

Her determination landed Roberts a chair at the prosecutor's desk for one of the biggest trials in the history of Palm Beach County. It was the 1991 rape accusation a Palm Beach County woman made against William Kennedy Smith.

"I, one-hundred percent believe (the accuser) but there was just a lot going on against it. And I don't think Palm Beach County had ever experienced anything like this media blitz," said Roberts.

The attention of the case would prepare Roberts for a future dotted with high profile trials.  Among them, the vehicular homicide of five teenagers involving Nicholas Copertino.

"It's just a sad situation. We got five dead kids, six injured people and now the defendant on the way to jail. I just hope they learn from it," said Roberts in an interview recorded shortly after the verdict was read in 1997.

Roberts invested herself in cases and her emotion and passion could be felt in her traffic homicide cases.

She would go on to help create a unit to focus specifically focused on traffic homicide. It was an often neglected field Roberts found fascinating, so she studied it.

Her experience would help her obtain a conviction in one of her biggest trials, the DUI manslaughter case against John Goodman.

"I was out at the scene that morning and I remember talking to the investigator and saying, 'this is a piece of cake, this is obvious,'" said Roberts.

When Roberts walks out the door on Thursday at the Palm Beach County state attorney's office, she said she will feel confident the Goodman verdict will stand.

What she struggles with is the question of what comes after she leaves.       

"It is strange. Without question. You've been taking the same route to work everyday for 26 years. You automatically go," said Roberts.

In total, Roberts tried 67 traffic homicide cases and about 100 other criminal trials. Roberts said she was involved in many other cases, but many were settled with a plea.

Once Roberts leaves her post with the county, she head to a civil firm where she will continue to mentor younger, aspiring attorneys.

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