After a flurry of national headlines, a series of court challenges, and a rush of party-switchers, voters in the Fourth Judicial Circuit ousted State Attorney Angela Corey. Challenger Melissa Nelson trounced Corey, 64 percent to 27 percent, with early challenger Wes White taking 9 percent of the vote.
But it wasn’t just the headlines in National Review, The Nation and The New York Times Magazine that motivated 6,500 voters to switch parties so they could vote against Corey in the primary, which was closed when her former campaign manager filed papers for a write-in candidate.
Corey’s defeat can’t be fully explained by bad press, or by how her office prosecuted her most notable defendants: George Zimmerman, Marissa Alexander and 12-year-old Cristian Fernandez. Nor does her reputation for stonewalling the media shed much light on why she lost election to what would have been her third term (folioweekly.com/AN-OPEN-LETTER-TO-ANGELA-COREY, 10570).
Her ouster signifies nothing less than the inevitable crash of a true believer.
And for every true believer, there is a creed. Corey’s is law-and-order politics, practiced at the church of “Tough on Crime.”
TWO SEPARATE YET EQUALLY IMPORTANT GROUPS…
A 35-year veteran prosecutor, Corey spent her career sharpening her talent as a trial lawyer and cultivating allies among local police officers and firefighters — especially police officers.
Police unions, which had previously supported Democrats, began to swing toward conservatives in the 1980s. Jacksonville law enforcement followed suit. Republican politics swept the city when former state attorney and Corey’s former boss, Ed Austin, switched to the GOP after being elected mayor.
High conviction rates, fueled by merciless charging decisions, harsh plea negotiations and severe sentences, became the modus operandi for tough-on-crime prosecutors around the nation, including Corey.
Corey successfully rode the law-and-order wave to become the first female State Attorney in the circuit in 2008. She ran unopposed in 2012.
But just as Corey’s political fortune rose with a national political wave, it also crashed with that wave.
The political landscape shifted under her feet. Where there once was a near-holy deference given to law enforcement, there is now a media spotlight that magnifies every potential misstep, from initial police contacts gone tragically awry, to suffering inside the private prison industry.
INSULATED BY AN UNOPPOSED ELECTION
The push for criminal justice reform continues to emerge from the ground up, with Black Lives Matter at the forefront. Voters simply aren’t buying the old approach to criminal justice any more.
But Corey was too busy trying Zimmerman in 2012 to notice the turning political tide. She would enter the 2016 race uninitiated in the new politics.
While she and her assistants fought passionately on behalf of Trayvon Martin, true belief in Zimmerman’s sinister intent was not enough. Being one of the good guys was not enough. The trickle-down effects of Florida’s stand-your-ground laws had changed the law of self-defense in homicide cases. The duty to retreat, entrenched in our common law for centuries, was gone with the wind — not unlike Zimmerman’s conviction.
Tough-on-crime began to unravel more visibly in 2014 as images of police shootings of unarmed black men and boys took the spotlight. The hegemony of deference for law enforcement disintegrated.
Corey could never have predicted that the events in Sanford would be cast in the same light as what happened in Ferguson, Cleveland, New York, Baton Rouge or Minnesota. Instead of being held in high esteem for vigorously pursuing a killer, Corey would be blamed for bungling Zimmerman’s case. Martin’s killing would become a symbol of how the law fails to protect black lives.
While she may have found some redemption by convicting Michael Dunn, it was too late.
The law-and-order chickens, hatched decades before Corey ever took office, had come home to roost.
WHEN PASSION GOES TOO FAR
While the criminal justice system produces racially biased results, many agree that Corey bears no racial bias. She just prefers to win. Does that make her overzealous, as a recent Harvard Law School report contends?
The short answer is: All good lawyers are zealous in representing their clients.
But the State Attorney’s Office is supposed to be different. Tuesday’s vote signals that the public is coming to understand prosecutors’ special responsibilities to the community as a whole — not to crime victims alone.
Corey and her assistants hold positions of immense state power. And state power is a mighty thing.
It’s so powerful that innocent people will plead to lesser crimes rather than spend thousands of dollars to fight for exoneration. And that doesn’t take into account the years of misery and heartache it takes to fight the machine. Even if you win, it can chew you up.
That’s why prosecutors have such broad discretion.
In daily practice, over-relying on the tough-on-crime political approach that got you elected can come back to bite you in the ass. Eventually, choices about charges, plea-bargains, trials and sentences add up to criminal justice policy.
For example, between 2009 and 2014, Corey’s office direct-filed 1,475 juveniles into adult court. Miami’s state attorney direct-filed only 34 juveniles in that time.
That’s law-and-order politics gone haywire.
Local advocates have worked to promote a civil citations system for juveniles in
lieu of criminal charges. Those citations lead to diversionary programs like Teen Court and Neighborhood Accountability Boards. Corey has expressed preference for “scared-straight” style approaches, instead, despite lower recidivism rates for civil citation recipients.
Jacksonville is also an outlier in terms of the number of murder defendants we send to Death Row. Sure, Florida has a few unsolved issues with the United States Constitution. We share with Alabama the infamy of permitting juries to simply take a vote and leave, instead of requiring them to reach unanimity on death verdicts.
That doesn’t mean a county with five percent of the state’s population should impose its blood-thirst on the rest of Florida. One-quarter of all Florida defendants sentenced to death between 2010 and 2015 are from Duval County.
That’s prosecutorial fervor gone too far. And we haven’t even touched the racial disparities.
When Corey took the erroneous liberty, as one of the “good guys,” of not disclosing the previous medical examiner’s mental decline to murder defendants whose cases were potentially affected, she made a mistake that would haunt her to Election Day, when The Nation would attack her yet again.
Folio Weekly broke the story in June and Corey declined to comment (folioweekly.com/Truth-Justice-OR-the-ANGELA-COREY-Way,15563). But she implied in later interviews that it was within her discretion to protect the ME’s privacy because she had determined there was no harm done. Legal experts, however, insist that questions of potential harm were not Corey’s to answer.
Corey relied on the goodwill that the good guys had always enjoyed during the law-and-order years, only to find it was no longer there.
When voters in Jacksonville reach a tipping point in its approach to any issue, it’s a good sign that the rest of the country has already tipped. And so it is with criminal justice reform.
Are we ready to tackle the structural issues that plague our system with unequal results for people of different races and socioeconomic backgrounds? Last Tuesday’s voters said yes. How will prosecutors parse out the difference between “throw the book at them” and “smart justice” without becoming “soft
One case at a time.