Florida’s killingest prosecutor

Florida State Attorney Angela Corey. (Win McNamee/Getty Images)
Florida State Attorney Angela Corey. (Win McNamee/Getty Images)

Angela Corey is probably best known as the prosecutor who tried George Zimmerman, Michael Dunn and Marissa Alexander.

But here’s something you may not know: Corey has sent more people to death row than any prosecutor in Florida. And it isn’t even close.

Since taking office in 2009, Corey has had the chance to speak to a lot of people trying to get their loved ones’ killers sentenced to death. She has put more people on Death Row than any other prosecutor in Florida.

Corey’s office has sent 21 people to Death Row, and 18 of them are still there with the other three getting off Death Row on appeal. No other current prosecutor in the state has put more than seven people on Death Row since the start of 2009. . . .

The Public Defender’s Office said it has defended 82 cases that started out as first-degree murders since Corey took office. According to their statistics, Corey’s office filed a notice to seek the death penalty in 42 of those cases.

Chief Assistant Public Defender Refik Eler said Florida’s laws that allow a prosecutor to seek death are very broad, and that allows an aggressive prosecutor to pursue death cases in almost any first-degree murder.

“We have a very aggressive prosecutor; I have no problem saying that,” Eler said. “But the Legislature has also made it easy for her to seek death.”

Apparently, Corey’s office will seek murder charges in another 12 cases in the pipeline.

If you support capital punishment, perhaps this isn’t all that alarming. But there seems to be a strong correlation between jurisdictions that send a lot of people to death row and jurisdictions where we later discover a lot of prosecutor misconduct and troubling flaws in the criminal justice system. Here’s a passage I wrote last year about Duval County, one of the counties in Corey’s jurisdiction:

Corey’s indictment of Zimmerman was widely criticized by defense attorneys and legal scholars. One prominent critic was Harvard Law Professor Alan Dershowitz. According to Dershowitz, Corey responded to his criticism by threatening to sue him, to sue Harvard University, and attempting to have Dershowitz disbarred. (She has threatened to sue other public critics as well.) She has also been accused of withholding exculpatory evidence in the case, then firing the IT worker in her office who exposed that evidence.

But Corey has a controversial history beyond the Zimmerman-Martin case. She’s the prosecutor who won a 20-year prison sentence for Marissa Alexander. The 31-year-old Alexander was convicted of aggravated assault with a [deadly] weapon after she fired a warning shot from a gun at her abusive husband. A state appeals court granted Alexander a new trial in September. Corey won a similar conviction against Ronald Thompson, a 65-year-old man accused of firing warning shots into the ground as some teenagers attempted to force their way into a home belonging to his friend. She has also received criticism for charging a 12-year-old with murder for beating his 2-year-old brother to death, then attempting to try him as an adult.

Duval County was where 15-year-old Brenton Butler was wrongly charged, tried, and ultimately acquitted in the beating deaths of two tourists. His story is the subject of the Oscar-winning documentary “Murder on a Sunday Morning.” In 2007, Chad Heins was finally cleared of the 1994 murder of his sister-in-law after serving 13 years in prison. Billy Joe Holton may well also be innocent of the 1986 murder for which he was convicted. Last year a judge re-sentenced him to time served plus probation, allowing him to go free. His attorneys are still working to exonerate him completely, over objections from Corey’s office.

Florida also has an odd tradition of electing its public defenders. The current head public defender for the district that includes Duval County is Matt Shirk, a guy who ran on a platform of cutting funding to the office [and] billing indigent defendants who are acquitted for legal services, and was endorsed by the Fraternal Order of Police (an odd endorsement for a public defender). One of Shirk’s first acts was to fire a large portion of the office staff, including the attorneys who had worked to expose the innocence of Brenton Butler.

Corey also isn’t much of a fan of the First Amendment.

Corey’s misdeeds in the Zimmerman trial were mostly buried under all the racial and political fallout from that case. There were even criticisms that she wasn’t aggressive enough. That’s unfortunate, because there’s compelling evidence that her conduct in that case is consistent with her conduct in the day-to-day cases that don’t attract attention from the gun debate, the race debate or the national media. And the people on the receiving end of that conduct are more likely to look like Trayvon Martin or Jordan Davis than Michael Dunn.

Radley Balko blogs about criminal justice, the drug war and civil liberties for The Washington Post. He is the author of the book "Rise of the Warrior Cop: The Militarization of America's Police Forces."
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Radley Balko · March 12