As establishment candidates cruised to victory across Florida, one upset came in the Republican primary race in Florida’s 4th circuit, which encompasses Duval County and the city of Jacksonville. Running for her third term as a tough, law-and-order prosecutor, State Attorney Angela Corey — who the Nation this year called “the cruelest prosecutor in America”—found herself suddenly out of step with voters’ changing attitudes about crime and punishment.
It wasn’t even close; local outlets called the race in favor of her opponent, Melissa Nelson, a former assistant district attorney, shortly after the polls closed.
I was visiting relatives in Jacksonville over the weekend when a canvasser who identified himself as a policeman rang the bell to drop off a flyer promoting Corey’s candidacy. The Fraternal Order of Police backed Corey in each of her races, and this was the first time opposition to her hard-line justice had crystallized to make her campaign a microcosm of the conflicts playing out around the country between communities of color and police departments.
Corey first came to national attention when Florida’s governor tapped her to lead the prosecution in the Trayvon Martin case. She failed to get a conviction against George Zimmerman, the self-appointed neighborhood watchman, in the boy’s death.
Her reputation, though, is as an aggressive prosecutor, especially when it comes to juveniles, and the statistics bear that out. Her jurisdiction sends more young people charged as adults to children or jail than any other one in the state, and her commitment rate of youth to detention centers is twice the state average.
“We call it residential commitment to make it sound nice, but we’re basically sending them off to jail,” says Rob Mason, an Assistant Public Defender in Jacksonville since 1990.
Mason cites the advances in brain research over the last decade that led the Supreme Court to eliminate the juvenile death penalty in 2005, and then in 2012 to ban mandatory life sentences without hope of release even in cases of homicide. “They’re not miniature adults,” says Mason, “we can’t hold them to the same level of culpability.”
He and others don’t question Corey’s sincerity; they think she is stuck in the 1990s, when lock ‘em up and throw away the key was the mentality. “She takes the position if a child commits an adult crime, then she’s going to charge him as an adult,” says a lawyer who has worked against her, but didn’t want to use her name for fear of incurring her wrath.
Corey’s unyielding stance got international publicity in 2011 when she pressed for a first-degree murder conviction as an adult for 12-year-old Cristian Fernandez in the death of his 2-year-old half brother. No one could recall someone that young being tried as an adult. A French documentary asked: Is this how America treats its children?
Corey never wavered despite mitigating facts. The children had been left alone; Cristian had called his mother to say the toddler had hurt himself. After the mother returned home, she waited more than eight hours before seeking medical attention. When the case against Cristian faltered, Corey tried to press additional charges against the boy.
Five local law firms working pro bono intervened on Cristian’s behalf, eventually allowing him to plead to manslaughter as a juvenile, which will allow him to be released on his 19th birthday in 2018. Melissa Nelson, who soundly defeated Corey in Tuesday’s primary, was among the attorneys who gave her time to the case.
State attorneys in Florida have broad authority, and Corey is known for pressuring juveniles who desperately want to stay out of adult court to agree to a plea that allows them to stay in residential commitment, what’s known as “kid jail.” The fourth circuit leads the state in these commitments.
She also holds the dubious record of winning the death penalty in a record 24 cases in her eight years in office, giving her the highest per capita death sentence rate in the nation. Duval County is 30 percent black; 80% of those who have received the death penalty are black.
The results of Tuesday’s primary in the Fourth Circuit are final; there is no Democrat competing for State Attorney on the November ballot. The results will allow a new era of justice to emerge as Corey’s outdated ideas about crime and its perpetrators are consigned to the dust bin of history.