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State Attorney Angela Corey of Florida’s 4th Judicial District has been scrutinized and criticized by media and public interest groups in recent days for prosecuting such a disproportionately high number of death penalty cases. Larry Hannan at the Florida-Times Union sparked the conversation with his March 8 report that pointed out the following:

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 ACLU examined this discrepancy on a per capita basis:

That figure [21] accounts for 25 percent of all death sentences in the entire state since 2009, even though Corey’s jurisdiction represents only 5 to 6 percent of the population and accounts for 8 percent of Florida’s murders.

There is no doubt that Corey is the reason for the high number of prosecutions – her office said so in a press release: “Corey makes the final decision.” And, as commentators have fleshed out in recent days, there are good reasons to be concerned. To recap, here are some of those reasons:

 

1. Corey’s alleged misconduct in the Zimmerman case leads to broader questions about the integrity of her office.

In the George Zimmerman case, an IT worker in Corey’s office, Ben Kruidbos, was fired after reporting undisclosed evidence to the prosecutors on the case and later testifying about the evidence at a hearing. From our post last year:

According to Kruidbos, he noticed that a Florida Department of Law Enforcement report from Trayvon Martin’s cell phone was missing information in late 2012 or early 2013. Apparently he was able to generate a report that was more than three times the size of the one that prosecutors handed to Zimmerman’s defense team. Kruidbos says he was concerned that defense counsel was entitled to more information, and took his concerns to a State Attorney’s Office investigator and Angela Corey’s assistant prosecutor in the case, Bernie de la Rionda.

Obviously unsatisfied with the response from de la Rionda, Kruidbos then used his attorney, Wesley White, to inform Zimmerman’s team about the missing information.

Though Corey eventually won a fight to suppress the evidence at Zimmerman’s trial, her failure to disclose it is the subject of a sanctions motion filed by Zimmerman’s legal team which is still pending. The Florida Commission on Human Relations is also investigating Kruidbos’s whistle blower lawsuit claims against Corey.

 

2. Corey demonstrates a disregard for  factors that make a defendant less culpable.

The death penalty is supposed to be reserved for “the worst of the worst” – not all murderers, but those who are particularly morally culpable. When compared with the track record of Miami-Dade DA Katherine Rundle, Corey’s capital charging decisions seem to disregard circumstances in an offender’s life that would make them less culpable under Supreme Court standards. Hannan reports:

“The simple fact is that Angela Corey prosecutes cases that Katherine Rundle wouldn’t touch,” said Stephen Harper, a Florida International University law professor who previously worked as an assistant public defender in Miami.

When Harper was a public defender, Rundle’s prosecutors were reluctant to put anyone on Death Row who had been repeatedly abused as a child. Corey hasn’t shown the same restraint, Harper said.

Corey’s prosecutions in non-death cases supports this allegation.  Case-in-point is Marissa Alexander, who was sent to prison for 20 years for firing a warning shot  after a fight with her husband who had a record of domestic abuse. Corey’s decision to seek such a harsh sentence against Alexander has been lambasted by groups such as the National Organization for Women, which announced Monday that it is pushing for Corey to resign over the case. Corey was also heavily criticized for seeking to try a 12 year-old child with a history of severe abuse as an adult in a murder case that could have resulted in a sentence of life in prison.

 

3. Corey is able to take advantage of an under-resourced opposition even when pursuing the most serious punishment.

When a prosecutor has the resources to pursue the death penalty in nearly half of all first-degree murder cases (42 of 82), it suggests she’s not facing much of a fight in court.

Stetson University College of Law Dean Emeritus and Professor of Law Bruce Jacob told Hannan that a death penalty case should cost a lot more than its costing in Duval county, suggesting the defense bar isn’t able to adequately defend the cases:

“A death-penalty case really should cost at least $100,000 per person,” Jacob said.

This shows that the public defenders don’t really have the time to do these cases properly, and even private lawyers may not be putting the time in that they should, Jacob said.

Radley Balko at The Washington Post highlighted some troubling facts about the elected public defender in Corey’s judicial district in a post last year:

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…

Since the state has an obligation to provide adequate representation to indigent defendants, it is concerning that capital lawyers in Corey’s jurisdiction may not have the time or resources to properly represent someone facing the ultimate punishment.

 

4. Corey’s pursuit of so many death penalty cases is in line with her penchant for overcharging more broadly.

The now infamous Zimmerman and Dunn cases have been criticized as instances where Corey’s overcharging led to disappointing acquittals. From Stephanie Mencimer at Mother Jones:

[Corey’s] overcharging of Zimmerman in the Trayvon Martin case is considered one reason why Zimmerman is still a free man, since she couldn’t support the second-degree murder charge she hit him with. She has also been criticized for screwing up the prosecution of Michael Dunn, a white man who killed an unarmed black teenager, Jordan Davis, for refusing to turn down the music in the car he was sitting in. Critics, among them Alan Dershowitz, who has called for Corey to be disbarred, say she pushed forward with first-degree charges against Dunn, which included allegations of premeditation that she couldn’t prove at trial, rather than a more appropriate—and winnable—second-degree murder charge. (Dunn was ultimately convicted of attempted murder after the jury deadlocked on the actual murder charge; Corey plans to retry him.)

Despite this array of concerns, the fact remains that Corey is acting within the bounds of her discretion by pursuing a high rate of death sentences. Her charging decisions may fairly be described as prosecutorial overreach – but lawmakers have made the playing field so wide that there’s not much of a line for Corey to reach over. As the chief assistant public defender of Corey’s judicial district told Hannan, the Florida Legislature has made it easy for prosecutors to do what Corey is doing by creating 16 aggravating circumstances that allow for the death penalty as a possible punishment when someone is charged with first-degree murder.

Corey is essentially a lesson in what happens when we give the wrong people wide powers of discretion in our criminal justice system. One answer is to vote her out; but this is a short-term fix. There will inevitably be more like her.

In the immediate sense, what we find troubling is Corey’s decisions to seek the death penalty; but the structural concern is the laws that afford her the right to do so. Yes, there are many examples of state attorneys in Florida who are using more reasonable judgment to decide when to pursue the death penalty, but that’s not because of anything the Florida Legislature has done to guide their discretion.

While this latest discussion certainly illuminates why we should be concerned about the administration of capital punishment in the 4th Judicial District, perhaps it’s time to consider that the problem isn’t just Angela Corey.

 

 

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