State Attorney Angela Corey may have suppressed evidence that could overturn dozens of homicide convictions - or more.
Dr. Margarita Arruza, former chief medical examiner of the local office, which covers Clay, Columbia, Duval, Hamilton and Nassau counties, retired at the end of 2010. Doctors from the Medical Examiner’s Office routinely testify to the content of reports made by colleagues who are unavailable, so it did not seem out of the ordinary when Arruza did not testify in subsequent trials.
According to numerous sources, a handful of courthouse insiders – including Corey, two of her key deputies and a defense attorney and his firm – knew the truth: The reason for Arruza’s retirement was a diagnosis of early onset Alzheimer’s disease.
Attorney Patrick McGuinness said that he noticed that something was terribly wrong with Arruza at a deposition on September 1, 2010.
“I took a deposition with her in a child homicide case where it was clear she wasn’t in her right mind and I sent it to some other medical examiners who were shocked.”
McGuinness provided Folio Weekly Magazine a transcript of that deposition. In it Arruza – testifying to the content of her autopsy report, which she has in front of her – answers some questions, others she answers incorrectly even when assisted with locating the information in the file; in 13 instances, Arruza doesn’t respond to direct questions. Asked whether the skull was fractured in the parietal, occipital, sphenoid, or mastoid process, she responds, “Well, it looks like it’s a skull.”
Following this response, the prosecutor requests an off-the-record discussion with the defense. Afterward, McGuinness continues questioning Arruza with much the same results. At one point Dr. Arruza says, “I feel like an idiot today.”
Following another recess requested by the prosecutor, McGuinness states that they don’t have time to finish and have agreed to end the deposition early. The transcript states that the deposition began at 3:51 p.m. and concluded at 4:36 p.m.
He said Arruza was “very distressed” and her conduct that day was in such contrast to her usual professionalism that he was concerned she was having a mini-stroke or drug reaction.
“I voiced my concerns to the state [attorney’s office],” McGuinness said.
A month later Arruza was still on the job.
Former prosecutor Wes White, a candidate for state attorney, said that he noticed that the ME was having severe memory problems in October 2010 when he questioned her to prepare for a case he was prosecuting. He said Arruza seemed confused and couldn’t answer basic questions about the case. He scheduled a second round of questioning in front of Corey, his boss at the time, which was also attended by assistant state attorney John Guy, who has since been appointed to a circuit court judgeship.
“I conducted the examination of Arruza in front of Angela Corey to demonstrate Arruza’s unfitness to testify,” White said.
He said that during this questioning, Arruza again couldn’t recall basic information about the case or herself, including where she attended school. After the questioning concluded, he says Arruza left, but returned several minutes later, saying she didn’t remember where her car was parked.
White said that, “to her credit,” after Arruza left Corey was sympathetic, even sorrowful, and she assured him she would inform all defense counsels of the ME’s incapacity to testify. (By this time, White says Guy was no longer in the room.)
“Angela Corey told me specifically that all disclosures would be made to opposing counsel.”
White said he worked out a plea deal in his case and informed the defense. “I fulfilled my constitutional obligation and made the disclosures required by law.” Richard Kuritz, opposing counsel in that case, confirmed that White informed him of Arruza’s condition.
It appears that Corey did just the opposite: She buried it.
White provided FWM with the following email from Guy to 18 assistant state attorneys, including White, on which Corey is copied, dated January 7, 2011:
Effective January 1, 2011, Dr. Arruza has retired from the Medical Examiner’s Office. Ms. Corey has appointed Dr. Valorie [sic] Rao as the acting Chief Medical Examiner for our District. A substitute medical examiner will be needed to testify for Dr. Arruza in the future. Please advise anyone in your area that is affected by this news.
Thank you, John
Guy said he didn’t recall who asked him to send the email. “My supervisor would have been Angela Corey,” Judge Guy said.
Guy did acknowledge that he knew Arruza was suffering from “some dementia” but said he did not recall when or how he became aware of it.
“I do remember that I was not aware of it until it was like it was a real issue.”
In an email to SAO spokesperson Jackelyn Barnard, FWM asked if Corey would like to comment on the email. Barnard responded, “The email speaks for itself.”
FWM also asked Barnard when Corey became aware of Arruza’s condition, what steps were taken to ensure she sought medical help, and whether and how the prosecution disclosed Arruza’s condition to the defense in cases in which she had performed autopsies. Barnard responded, “You need to direct all inquiries regarding Dr. Arruza to the City of Jacksonville.”
The City of Jacksonville confirmed that Arruza’s last day of employment with the Medical Examiner’s Office was December 31, 2010. As to the reasons for her retirement, the city could not comment. The city has no purview over the SAO’s caseload.
Published phone numbers listed to Margarita Arruza are disconnected; none of the numerous sources FWM asked had any knowledge of how to reach her.
Dr. Nilufer Ertekin-Taner, a neurologist and neurogeneticist at Mayo Clinic who treats dementia patients and leads a laboratory focused on Alzheimer’s disease, said that symptoms and disease progression vary from patient to patient and it is not possible to make a diagnosis based on symptoms alone. She said common symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease, a type of dementia, include loss of memory, the predominant symptom, which may cause difficulties recalling names, performing routine tasks and navigating. Alzheimer’s progression varies, but it usually worsens slowly.
Some dementia patients may not realize they have symptoms.
“Early on in the course, the patient may be aware, but it is their loved ones that will be more aware … later on, the patient may not be aware,” Dr. Ertekin-Taner said.
According to records from the ME, Arruza performed her last autopsy on September 26, 2010. In 2012 First Coast News reported that Arruza’s successor, Dr. Valerie Rao, sent an email to the city complaining that when she took over in November 2010, she found malpractice, including incomplete files and other violations.
First Coast News quoted Dr. Rao as writing, “There are hundreds of reports from previous physicians that have not been done in the past.”
“That is absolutely true,” Dr. Rao told FWM of the deficiencies in the ME’s office when she took over.
When informed that several sources had said Arruza retired due to Alzheimer’s disease, Rao became extremely agitated. “I don’t want to get into it because I have nothing to say about medical conditions of other people,” Dr. Rao said. Rao, who has worked for the ME’s office for a decade, also said that she did not notice any odd behavior from Arruza in the months prior to her retirement.
Rao, who is not an attorney, expressed doubt that the state would have been required to inform defendants in the event that her predecessor was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s.
Every single attorney FWM spoke to for this story disagreed.
WHO NEEDS TO KNOW?
In criminal cases, the law requires the prosecution to turn over all evidence that is material to the guilt or innocence of the defendant. In Brady v. Maryland, the U.S. Supreme Court specifically ruled that the prosecution must turn over all evidence or information that is favorable to the accused. The mental incapacity of a witness is one such category of evidence.
Appellate attorney Rick Sichta said that proving violations of the Brady rule requires two elements: 1) evidence was withheld by the state or the medical examiner, either intentionally or negligently; and 2) the information was material to the case or could have been used as impeachment.
“If the ME is determining cause of death for homicide … then that decision-making process ought to be fully vetted with knowledge that the person may have been suffering from dementia or Alzheimer’s,” Public Defender Matt Shirk said. Shirk noted that the duty to inform defense rests with the prosecution, not the ME’s office.
Sichta agreed that the mental incapacity of a potential witness, such as the medical examiner who performed the victim’s autopsy, is one type of exculpatory evidence that the state is bound to disclose under the Brady rule.
“The state has an ongoing Brady obligation under the rules of discovery to list, that means writing, any issue that provides Brady material,” Sichta said. “… It would have to apply to every case that Arruza worked on.”
Records obtained by FWM show that Arruza performed 54 homicide autopsies from January 3, 2009 to September 26, 2010. (Her condition may be relevant to more – or fewer – cases; courts would decide on a case-by-case basis.) At least 25 resulted in convictions. One defendant, Cecil King, is on death row.
FWM asked attorney Rhonda Peoples-Waters, whose client Andre Bonner was convicted of the manslaughter of Gina S. Mangram, whose autopsy Arruza performed on June 13, 2009, if she was aware of the medical examiner’s Alzheimer’s diagnosis. “Absolutely not,” she said.
Peoples-Waters said that not only were prosecutors under an ethical obligation to inform the defense of such, she believes that some defendants may be able to successfully file what is informally known as a “3850,” a petition for post-conviction relief based on ineffectiveness of counsel under Rule 3.850 of the Florida Rules of Criminal Procedure. “It’s basically saying that because of the ineffectiveness of their counsel, [their outcome would have been different],” she said. “And it can be filed not just against defense counsel, it can be filed against the prosecutor.”
“I’m certain that many defendants will be able to put forth that claim,” she said.
Attorney Shelley Lynne Thibodeau, whose client, Damon V. Williams, was charged with the murder of Andre Moore, whose autopsy Arruza performed on April 12, 2010, said she knew Arruza’s retirement “was medical but not that it was Alzheimer’s.”
Thibodeau also said that she has had concerns about the SAO’s compliance with rules of discovery.
“I’m glad someone is looking into discovery issues with the state attorney,” she said.
Attorney Francis Jerome “Jerry” Shea, whose client DeShawn Leon Green was separately convicted of the murders of Robert Lee Kearney and Bryan James Clemons, whose autopsies Arruza performed on March 12, 2009 and April 23, 2009, respectively, said, “No, I was never informed [of Arruza’s condition] … I don’t know what her condition was.”
Shirk, whose office represented eight defendants convicted of various degrees of murder in cases in which Arruza performed autopsies on the victims in 2009-2010, said the state never informed his office of her condition.
“We just heard about it,” Shirk said.
A PATTERN OF DISCOVERY VIOLATIONS
This is not the first time the state attorney has been accused of violating the rules of discovery. Numerous sources said that her office has a pattern of withholding evidence.
CNN legal analyst Mark O’Mara, who successfully defended George Zimmerman for the murder of Trayvon Martin in 2013, said that Corey, who was appointed special prosecutor on the case by Florida Governor Rick Scott, flagrantly disregarded the law in that case.
“There were a number of discovery violations perpetrated by Corey,” O’Mara said.
O’Mara, a former prosecutor himself, said he’s never seen another prosecutor so notorious for withholding evidence. “She’s the pinnacle … She’s in a class by herself in that she has a pattern and practice of discovery violations,” he said, adding, “… That’s only one of her Medusa heads.”
O’Mara specifically mentioned Corey’s reputation for holding grudges and carrying out vendettas. Ben Kruidbos, a former information technology officer with her office, testified about Corey’s discovery violations in the Zimmerman case - photographic evidence and cell phone records that were not turned over to the defense as required. Five weeks later, on the day closing arguments concluded, he was fired. Kruidbos sued for wrongful termination; in a responsive pleading, Corey claimed that his firing was justified because he’d “violated critical job duties, engaged in egregious conduct and exposed the public to risk of serious harm” and, further, that he “owed a duty of loyalty to [the] state attorney.”
State Attorneys are essentially immune from bar complaints during their terms of office, but O’Mara said that he believes there should be “an open investigation against her.”
“She has invaded the province of the judge, jury and justice system,” O’Mara said.
Shirk mentioned the Jerome Hayes’ case as another example of Corey’s office suppressing exculpatory evidence. Hayes was arrested for three counts of armed robbery and held for 589 days before being released on October 17, 2014, in spite of prosecutors obtaining evidence within weeks of his arrest that his brother, not he, had committed the crimes and, further, that Hayes had alibis for two of the crimes, evidence which it did not turn over to the defense until much later.
“In that particular case we felt so strongly about it that we filed bar complaints against the attorneys involved from the State Attorney’s Office because it was either intentional or it was so reckless that you couldn’t tell the difference,” Shirk said.
The Florida Bar ultimately dismissed the complaints against ASAs Erin Wolfson and Peter Overstreet but with some harsh words of caution for Wolfson, to whom the Florida Times-Union reports it wrote of its concern “that you failed to provide an item of discovery as required under law.”
Numerous criminal defense attorneys said that Corey’s office routinely violates discovery law.
“It is a systemic problem … it permeates through all prosecutions,” Shirk said.
“Angela wants to win under all circumstances, all cases regardless of the merits … that’s a real danger to the integrity of the justice system,” McGuinness said.
Some believe that Corey’s pattern of discovery violations goes back decades.
The June 3 episode of Dateline, “Rear Window,” looked into the 1998 murder of Corey Parker. In 2005, Robert Denney was convicted of stabbing the 25-year-old more than 100 times. Denney has consistently maintained his innocence in the case, which was prosecuted by Corey when she was an assistant state attorney.
Sichta, who is representing Denney on his appeal, said the episode left out key information that has come to light since the trial. Sichta said that the state failed to disclose that someone else – one of the original suspects – confessed to his wife that he, not Denney, murdered Parker, and that the state had conducted secret DNA tests on evidence without informing the defense.
“[There is] a film with Angela Corey on it talking about the confession,” Sichta said.
McGuinness, who defended Denney, confirmed that he was not informed of the second confession during the course of his representation.
Former Public Defender Bill White said that Corey essentially railroaded the wife of the man who confessed to Parker’s murder.
“Dateline didn’t mention the fact that his wife was interviewed and Angela basically did a Star Chamber with her, brought her in with several witnesses and just hammered her,” White said. “… The state just bowled over her and said, ‘This is nothing.’”
Corey, through her spokesperson, vehemently, and quickly, denied any wrongdoing, writing via email, “Your sources are absolutely and unequivocally wrong and motivated by something other than the truth. There was never a confession. The State went above and beyond in this case even to the point of testing [the suspect’s*] DNA after the conversation with his estranged wife, [omitted*], in 2011.” Corey said the DNA evidence proved the suspect was not involved with the murder.
Sichta said he has sent a list of questions to Dateline asking why they did not include portions of his and Denney’s interviews in which each separately discusses the second confession and the secret DNA tests. Denney’s case has been reopened.
WHAT’S NEXT FOR THE CONVICTED KILLERS
It is possible that all of the convictions in which Arruza autopsied the victims in her last years of practice will be reopened. Plea deals may be invalidated, convictions overturned.
In the last two years she was in office, Arruza autopsied victims whose deaths led to 25 homicide convictions, 24 in Corey’s jurisdiction, one in Columbia County. (Columbia County Public Defender Blair Payne said that he was not informed of Arruza’s medical condition in the course of his representation of Rodney Copeland, which Corey’s office may have also had a duty to disclose.) FWM attempted to contact every attorney in those cases (with the exception of James Nolan, who is deceased) and left detailed messages informing them of Arruza’s condition. Only one of the attorneys FWM spoke with said they were informed of Arruza’s condition by the state: Kuritz, who was informed by Wes White. Kuritz did not recall if the state informed him of her condition during his subsequent defense of Demarcus Johnson in Duval County.
If prosecutors had informed defense counsel of Arruza’s condition, the defense may have questioned her autopsy reports, such as by seeking an independent expert witness or cross-examining the ME who testified to Arruza’s findings. In cases where the cause of death was undeniable, it likely would not have had much, if any, effect on the outcome. But it’s impossible to know for sure how it would have affected cases. Now the courts may have to decide whether suppressing such would have made an impact on the case.
Shirk said that his office will probably file motions to vacate convictions on behalf of all eight defendants – Eduardo Junior Reeves, John Leon Collins, Thomas Lester Jr., Malcolm Thrower, Nesta Walker, Deangelo Thomas, Oshane Lawson and Clyde Arline – in whose cases Arruza performed autopsies on the victims in her last years as the ME.
It is possible that the litigation will cost taxpayers millions.
“Just the time involved with our representation is going to be significant. Then you add the entire court system involved. And then if somebody ends up being acquitted … you’ve got somebody potentially who was incarcerated that shouldn’t have been.”
FWM asked numerous attorneys whether they were surprised to learn Angela Corey may have suppressed evidence.
“Nothing surprises me any longer with that administration,” Shirk said.
* FWM’s policy precludes publishing names of individuals accused of being involved with crimes who have not been contacted for comment.