Angela Corey has an axe to grind, or so it seems. The Florida State’s Attorney for the Fourth Judicial Circuit holds the dubious honor as the nation’s most infamous prosecutor. Corey is probably best known as the prosecutor who bungled the George Zimmerman and Michael Dunn cases by overcharging the perpetrators and underperforming at trial, but she is also known the most over zealous prosecutor in Florida’s history sending more inmates to Death Row in her five years in office than any of her predecessors in Florida’s history.
As a state’s attorney, you’re not likely to win a popularity contest, but Angela Corey is different. She is not only derided by victims of her aggressive prosecutorial style, but is routinely disparaged by her colleagues as well. As a prosecutor, Corey employs a no-nonsense, often nonsensical approach to prosecuting her victims, and is often accused by those in the legal community of overcharging the perpetrators of a crime. Mitigating circumstances be damned, Corey often goes in for the kill, literally.
According to the Public Defender’s office, Corey’s office sent 21 people to Death Row since taking office in 2009, outpacing the next highest Florida prosecutors’ Death Row sentences by a 3 to 1 margin. http://www.dc.state.fl.us/index.html Brian Stull, an attorney with the American Civil Liberty argues that, “The death penalty is being disproportionately and overzealously applied as a result of policy judgments made by Corey and her office.”
Judgment doesn’t seem to be one of Corey’s strong suits, after all, Corey gained national attention in 2011 by prosecuting 12 year old Cristian Fernandez as an adult for killing his 2-year-old half brother, making Fernandez the youngest person in Florida’s history to be charged with first degree murder. Although Cristian maintained the death was an accident and the judge ruled that Cristian didn’t understand his Miranda rights (what 12 year old would?) and was questioned without an adult present, Corey pressed for a first degree murder charge, and if convicted, Cristian would have spent the rest of his life in prison without the possibility of parole. After protests and petitions, the prosecution eventually offered Cristian a plea deal, charging him with manslaughter and locking him away until he is 19, but not before he was shackled and thrown in solitary confinement at an adult jail for three weeks during court proceedings. How’s that for prosecutorial judgment?
Corey’s first fiscal year in office, 2009-2010, was a banner year for her: she sent two-thirds more people to prison than her predecessor the year before, three times as many people to prison than Miami’s prosecutor, and twice as many juveniles to adult court in that same time period.
To demonstrate that she is tough on crime, the State’s Attorney’s Office’s (“SAO”) website boasts, “In January 2009, State Attorney Angela Corey promised…the community that she would be tough on crime…and [she] delivered…Right now, the SAO is ranked second best in the state for conviction rates. Before Corey took office, the SAO was in last place – 20th in the state – in conviction rates. In Corey’s first fiscal year, that conviction rate jumped to more than 90 percent and a second best ranking in the state.” Statistics like these would otherwise be lauded if not for the fact that Corey routinely employs questionable tactics as a means to getting a conviction.
Take Marissa Alexander for example, whom Corey famously overcharged with Aggravated Assault with a Deadly Weapon for firing a warning shot from her licensed gun in the direction of her estranged and abusive husband, Rico Gray. Despite the fact that no one was hit, and Alexander had no prior arrests, Corey pressed for and obtained a conviction that put Alexander in prison for 20 years. Upon appeal and possibly because of it, Corey amended her complaint to include charges of Aggravated Assault against Gray’s two children, who were at the residence at the time of the incident but not injured. Just last week, the court set a retrial date, and this time, Angela Corey is seeking what amounts to a death sentence for Alexander; 60 years in prison versus the original 20.
Similarly, Corey successfully charged, army veteran Ronald Thompson with Assault with a Deadly Weapon for firing warning shots into the ground to scare off the would be assailants. Thompson was convicted and slapped with a mandatory 20 year prison sentence. Even the judge was appalled, calling the sentence “A crime in itself” and reduced the sentence to 3 years. Corey appealed, and won another 20 year sentence. Thompson appealed and won. Corey wouldn’t give up, while awaiting a retrial, she offered Thompson a 5 year plea deal to ensure the senior citizen and non violent offender spent at least some time in jail. Just another notch in her prosecutorial belt. “By Any Means Necessary,” isn’t an axiom that is wasted on Corey.
Corey tried any means necessary, however unsuccessfully, to trump up charges against George Zimmerman, a tactic that backfired, resulting in Zimmerman walking away a free man. Many legal analysts argued, rightfully, that Corey had a better chance of convicting of Zimmerman of manslaughter versus second-degree murder. But in her attempt to demonstrate her tough as nails prosecutorial style, Corey intentionally omitted evidence that proved the facts weren’t strong enough to withstand a second degree murder conviction. In a chicken coming home to roost moment, Corey was indicted by a citizen’s grand jury for withholding exculpatory evidence in her Zimmerman affidavit to the grand jury, but not before famed trial lawyer and Harvard Law School professor Alan Dershowitz called for her disbarment falsifying evidence to support her claim. True to her retaliatory style, Corey allegedly called Harvard Law School, threatening to sue Dershowitz’s employer and threatening Dershowitz with legal sanctions and a libel suit. It bears noting that she did the same thing to a journalist questioning her tactics in the Fernandez case.
I could go on and on about Corey, but for the sake of my own legal license and brevity, I’ll point out one last dirty truth about Corey. Cross her at your own risk. Many in her office won’t speak on the record, for fear of being fired, after all, Corey fired her own employee at the State’s Attorney’s office who was responsible for recovering text and data from Trayvon Martin’s phone that even the Florida Law Enforcement department was not able to procure. Why? Because he testified that Corey omitted some exculpatory information in Zimmerman’s grand jury affidavit. In spite of the fact the her office had just given employee Ben Kruidbos a merit based raise, Corey’s office hand delivered a letter to Kruidbos, firing him the day the Trayvon Martin case began, admonishing Kruidbos to “never again…step foot in this office.”
Her website’s motto: "Justice promised, justice delivered," is purely a political mantra, not a practical one. A state’s attorney is supposed to represent the people’s interests, not the political interests of some half-cocked, prosecutor with tunnel vision.
Lisa Bonner is a lawyer and legal pundit in New York City. Follow her on Twitter @lisabonner