MELISSA NELSON: Folio Weekly’s 2016 Person of the Year

The news that she has been named Folio Weekly’s Person of the Year for 2016 solicits an honest, endearing and amusing reaction from the honoree.

“Oh, no! But I haven’t done anything yet!” Melissa Nelson protests, seeming stunned, then expresses sincere, gracious thanks for the honor.

Though Nelson is right, she’s also wrong. While she hasn’t been sworn in yet, and thus hasn’t technically “done anything”; the moment she announced her candidacy for the office of State Attorney, Melissa Nelson catapulted into the hearts and hopes of people all over the Fourth Judicial Circuit, which comprises Duval, Nassau and Clay Counties. Overnight she became the champion of those who had grown disillusioned by the scorched-earth approach to prosecution that had characterized the State Attorney’s Office under the leadership of Angela Corey. People who don’t regularly follow the minutiae of the local criminal justice system were drawn to Nelson’s campaign; thousands even switched their party affiliation just to vote for her in the Aug. 30 Republican primary.

Over these past eight months, Melissa Nelson has given people hope, which her win proves is far more powerful than fear.

Chatting with her over coffee, it’s easy to understand what drew voters in. Campaign talking points have a way of diluting the personality, but not Nelson’s. She is who she is, unflinchingly: frighteningly intelligent, funny, thoughtful, compassionate and kind. Though a person of her intellect certainly has a depth that one conversation and a couple thousand words can’t capture, she doesn’t come across as calculating or guarded. She is authentically herself, an obscenely rare thing in politics.

On the campaign trail, she wowed voters by talking about how prosecutors have to balance their responsibility to keep the public safe by pursuing appropriate punishments with the constitutional and other legal and human rights of the accused, which many perceive to be a dramatic departure from justice under Corey. Over the past eight years, people have perceived a distortion of the local arm of the criminal justice system, which has focused far too much on punishment and far too little on prevention, rehabilitation and fairness – for both the victim and accused. There were larger forces at play, a national trend with a local arm in Corey’s office, which utilized a tough-on-crime approach that has been tough on the community, and kept the circuit at or near the top of the conviction rates for Florida’s circuits. But for eight long years, justice has seemed secondary to winning.

As she prepares to take office, Nelson tells Folio Weekly that she is prepared to see the conviction rate take a nosedive, in part because of tactics that the previous administration used to artificially inflate the rates and in part because she recognizes the nuances of circumstance and background that may not make the same stiff penalties appropriate for every individual. She is cognizant of the costs of litigation and incarceration and believes in rehabilitation.

As evidence of her commitment to blind justice, Nelson is actively pursuing funding to start a “conviction integrity unit” that will seek out and reverse wrongful convictions. If she is successful, this unit would be the first of its kind in the Southeast, the Florida Times-Union recently reported. She’s hired a grant writer to help find funding for such initiatives. She’s also determined to implement and, in some cases, reinstitute strategies to keep kids out of the system and, if they do end up on the punitive side of the law, to seek outcomes focused on fairness rather than purely punishment.

It is this kind of thinking, and her willingness to make tough decisions that might not look great on paper to some, but will alleviate the suffering of many, that separates her from many prosecutors. She represents a new approach to criminal justice, which many believe is sorely needed in Northeast Florida.

Born Melissa Williamson on June 14,1972, Nelson grew up in Tallahassee, where she learned the value of service from her father, a career law enforcement officer who retired as a U.S. Marshal. On the campaign trail, she spoke of how inspired she has been by her father’s career serving the community. The granddaughter of World War II veterans, Clay Today reported in June that Nelson fondly recalled taking long walks with her grandfather as a girl, during which they would feed apples to horses in a nearby stable and her grandfather would share life lessons and other kernels of wisdom. “Much of my character and the way I live my life comes from lessons I learned from him,” the article quoted her as saying of her grandfather, who passed away in 1997.

Nelson went on to receive her bachelor’s degree from the University of Florida and juris doctor degree from UF’s Levin College of Law. Always exceptional – those who know her frequently remark on her intellect – Nelson admits that she did struggle in one class as an undergraduate: English.

“If I come back in my next life, I want to write, but I’m just not a talented writer… I would struggle to make B’s in English,” she said.

Her first job after graduating from law school in 1997 was with the local SAO. In August, Jay Plotkin, who was involved with hiring her, told the T-U, “She was a superstar, there’s just no other way to describe it.”

She began trying misdemeanors and worked her way up the ladder until she was handling the most challenging homicide cases. Over her 12 years with the office, she prosecuted several notable cases, perhaps most memorably that of Jason Andrew Simpson, who was convicted and sentenced to death for the ax murders of Archie Howard Crook and Kimberli Michelle Kimbler.

After leaving the SAO in 2009, less than a year after Corey took office, Nelson made the switch from criminal to commercial litigation, as well as Title VII and Title IX claims and white-collar criminal defense, joining the local office of McGuireWoods, a well-respected international law firm with 23 offices scattered across the U.S. and Europe. Some attorneys struggle after changing areas of practice, but not Nelson. Just 16 months after she was hired, the Jacksonville Business Journal wrote a piece about how she’d helped attract new clients to the firm and grown its practice. In June, McGuireWoods Chairman Richard Cullen, a former U.S. Attorney and Attorney General of Virginia, told Clay Today that Nelson was a “star” in the firm.

During her seven years with McGuireWoods, Nelson was mostly out of the limelight with one very visible exception. Nelson was on the pro bono team of attorneys who defended Cristian Fernandez, the 12 year old whom Corey’s office charged as an adult with the first-degree murder of his two-year-old half brother, a case that earned Corey’s office significant press, much of it negative. Fernandez is the youngest person ever charged with first-degree murder in Jacksonville history and is one of the youngest nationwide.

Fernandez eventually pleaded guilty to manslaughter as a juvenile. After the plea was reached, attorney Hank Coxe credited Nelson and attorney Buddy Schulz for spearheading the negotiations, the T-U reported.

The hours can be just as long, but it’s no secret that private practice is far more lucrative and typically less stressful than the job of state attorney. Nelson could have spent the rest of her career working the ladder at McGuireWoods, probably getting rich in the process; instead, she chose to reenter public life and take on an enormous personal and professional challenge – and a pay cut.

“I felt called to do this and compelled to do it. I believed this was important to all of us,” she says. “And I have been troubled; having come from that office, I care a lot about it. I care about the work of the office. I’ve been troubled by the decisions and I thought, I can keep complaining about this or I have the power to do something about it.”

She discussed the possibility of running for the office with her family, whom she says was and continues to be wholly supportive, and did a lot of soul searching. (There was also some relatively quiet fundraising, research and polling.) Then, with the filing deadline looming, she made her decision.

“It was a scary decision. It was a very scary decision. But once I made it – though the decision was difficult, challenging – but once I made it the weight of the world was off me and I was at such great peace ‘cause I knew what I was doing was the right thing.”

From the very start, Nelson’s campaign focused on positive messaging, highlighting her record as a prosecutor, offering guidance on the future of the circuit’s criminal justice system under her leadership and not excessively trading barbs with Wes White, the other Republican contender, and Corey.

There were many who breathed sighs of relief when Nelson crushed the Aug. 30 primary, trouncing Corey by 38 points. The remaining candidate, Kenny Leigh, a write-in whose candidacy was widely assumed to have been a ploy by Corey’s camp to close the race to Republicans, soon withdrew, and, with no Democratic challenger, it became official: Melissa Nelson will be the next State Attorney of the Fourth Judicial Circuit. She will be sworn in next month.

Sitting down for coffee recently at one of her favorite spots in Jacksonville’s urban core, where everyone seems to know her by name, she gives the impression of a woman who is capable of mentally moving a thousand miles an hour while seeming to be at a standstill. Though she’s very, very busy getting things in order for when she takes over next month, Nelson doesn’t seem rushed or pressed for time; she lets the conversation run its course through a wide variety of topics, from her philosophy of criminal justice – the oft-repeated “tough but fair” moniker that was a hallmark of her campaign – to her family, gardening, composting, singing, dancing, reincarnation and some of the plans she’s in the process of finalizing for how she will run the office.

Nelson laughs as she relates how her family might never have been if Jason Nelson, her husband, didn’t give her a second chance after a “terrible blind date.”

“He was not going to call me again and it took two weeks but the couple who set us up kept telling him I had been on a C game and I had an A game and to give me another chance,” she says.

After he did finally call, they had what she calls “a very traditional courtship.”

Thirteen years of marriage later they are the parents of three, a daughter, aged 10 and two boys, ages nine and seven, with whom they enjoy a home life that sounds more than a little bit idyllic. They grow vegetables, compost their food waste, have “a ton of fruit trees” and three egg-laying hens. Though, if their dog has anything to do with it, the hens might not last.

“Our dog, he’s a hysterical dog, he’s an awesome dog, he would never hurt anything,” she says. “We lost a chicken, we were like ‘What happened?’ then we see the dog throwing the chicken into the canal.”

She laughs then sobers, thinking of the poor chicken.

One of the greatest burdens that will rest squarely on the shoulders of the slender, elegant brunette who soon will officially be the most powerful woman in local politics – told this, Nelson laughs and says that she’s going to start using that line on her kids – is deciding when to pursue the death penalty. As a prosecutor has successfully tried capitol cases, Nelson clearly supports the death penalty but she is acutely aware that there is no one-size-fits-all punishment for homicide. With her as the top prosecutor, her office will carefully consider the facts and circumstances before pursuing death.

Nelson tells FW that she will have a four-person panel within the SAO that reviews all potential death penalty cases. After the prosecuting attorney reviews the evidence and decides that they believe death is the appropriate penalty, they will argue this decision to the panel, which will then issue its recommendation. Nelson will have the final say, of course, but by placing stopgaps in the process and creating a procedure that demands careful review of all such cases by many minds, rather than just one or two, it is almost without question that fewer capitol cases will tried and fewer people will be sentenced to death in the circuit.

This should come as a relief to those who have taken issue with the keep-no-prisoners philosophy that has characterized the SAO’s pursuit of the death penalty in recent years. An August report by The Fair Punishment Project, a joint initiative of Harvard Law School’s Charles Hamilton Houston Institute for Race & Justice and its Criminal Justice Institute, found that Duval County was one of 16 “outlier” counties nationwide that doles out a lion’s share of death penalties. From 2010 to 2015, the researchers found, Duval was responsible for approximately one-quarter of all the state’s death penalty cases – in spite of comprising just five percent of its population.

Regardless of Nelson’s personal approach to capitol cases, the recent Florida Supreme Court decision overturning the state’s death penalty law for failing to require juries to unanimously recommend death will significantly hinder the ability of prosecutors statewide to successfully argue for sentencing someone to death. (Previously, only a pure majority vote was required.) On Dec. 22, the court decided that inmates who were sentenced after the 2002 ruling in Ring v. Arizona are entitled to new sentencing hearings if the jury decision to sentence them to death was less than unanimous. Prior to the ruling, Nelson said that 60 inmates who were sentenced in the Fourth Circuit were potentially affected. Her team will now begin reviewing those among the 60 who were sentenced after Ring v. Arizona – 30-40 according to the T-U – and decide whether to re-seek the death penalty or commute their sentence to life in prison.

There are those who will see a decision to commute a death row inmate’s sentence to life without a fight as being “soft” on crime. But Nelson seems prepared to weather criticism and continuously endeavor to better herself and her office if the criticism is warranted. Asked if she plans to have a more open relationship with the press than the previous administration, she says she does and talks briefly of the public’s right to access information through the press. And, if the media perceives it is getting the silent treatment or her office isn’t being forthcoming or timely answering questions or public records’ requests, she says, “You’ll let me know.”

In recent years more focus has turned towards racial bias in criminal justice. Recently, a comprehensive year-long Sarasota Herald-Tribune investigation found that black defendants in Florida serve far more time than whites for the same crimes, even when they score the same points in formulas that are intended to set criminal penalties, which is supposed to standardize verdicts and minimize the effects of bias. Asked what role, if any, she believes prosecutors have in minimizing racial bias in the criminal justice system, Nelson, who had already read the piece, mentions a training she recently attended on implicit racial bias in prosecutions, which she says was “eye-opening.” In what seems typical Nelson fashion, she is bringing what she learned to the SAO by planning to provide a training program for all her attorneys on implicit
racial bias.

“All of us who believe that we are not [biased], we all harbor certain views of the world based on our own experiences, so we have to be vigilant in making sure that we are always being fair,” she says.

It’s this kind of thinking and honesty that made Melissa Nelson an easy choice for the Folio Weekly 2016 Person of the Year.

“I’m very humbled. Wow. I hope this time next year, I’m not the loser of the year.”