A recent high-visibility piece in the Nation questions whether Florida’s Fourth District State Attorney Angela Corey is fit for her role—one for which she is seeking re-election. The article establishes that her jurisdiction “embodies the outdated ideas that have fueled mass incarceration in this country—theories that everyone from the Obama administration to the Koch brothers have declared useless.” On the heels of that article, a few prominent local figures have come to Corey’s defense, including her former supervisor, George Bateh.
An article published this week in the Times-Union conveys Bateh’s view:
When George Bateh thinks back to the time he supervised Angela Corey, he repeatedly mentions the phrase “a passion for prosecution.” Bateh, a longtime assistant state attorney who was the director of the homicide division under former State Attorney Harry Shorstein, said Corey’s desire to make a difference made her stand out. “She became one of the best prosecutors in the city and I think a lot of people think she was one of the best in the state,” Bateh said.
Perhaps Corey shared the same “passion” as her former supervisor. But, if one is judged by the company she keeps, Bateh’s staunch support for Corey may ring alarm bells for those looking for prosecutors who seek justice rather than bend or break rules.
Bateh spent 35 years as a prosecutor in the State Attorney’s Office. He served as a homicide prosecutor for years before rising to the level of supervisor. In his zealous effort to put murder defendants on death row, he repeatedly crossed ethical and constitutional lines. In 1998, the Florida Supreme Court overturned the death sentence of Ryan Urbin, finding that Bateh’s closing arguments “were so egregious, inflammatory, and unfairly prejudicial” that “notwithstanding curative instructions” the trial court should have granted “a mistrial.” Among other things, the Court was “particularly concerned that the prosecutor invited the jury to disregard the law.” The Court also found that Bateh—contrary to state case law decided almost a decade earlier—“asserted that any juror’s vote for a life sentence would be irresponsible and a violation of the juror’s lawful duty.” And, flipping the defense’s mitigating evidence of parental neglect on its head, Bateh made “attacks [that] could only serve to prejudice Urbin for any animosity that may have been aroused in the jury for Urbin’s mother . . . .” The Court ended its decision in Urbin with this powerful statement about Bateh’s approach:
The fact that so many of these instances of misconduct are literally verbatim examples of conduct we have unambiguously prohibited in [earlier cases] simply demonstrates that there are some who would ignore our warnings concerning the need for exemplary professional and ethical conduct in the courtroom.
Bateh’s unrestrained prosecutorial aggression not only led to the reversal of Urbin’s death sentence, but it also ruined other prosecutions, funneling the State’s resources down the drain. In the prosecution of Fred Brooks, Bateh gave strikingly similar arguments in closing; indeed, the Court noted that “many of the comments in this case are the same as those made in Urbin, ‘with only the names of the victims and the defendants changed.’” In reversing Mr. Brooks’s death sentence in 2000, the Florida Supreme Court expressed serious frustration with the prosecutor’s misconduct: “the almost verbatim incantation of these comments in both Urbin and this case is remarkable given this Court’s unambiguous pronouncements over the last 50 years . . . .” Bateh again misled jurors, “misstat[ing] the law regarding the merged robbery and pecuniary gain aggravating circumstances.” Moreover, he personally attacked the defense lawyers, “transcend[ing] the bounds of legitimate comment on the evidence and impl[ying] that the jury could not believe defense counsel or the arguments asserted by them.” Again, the Florida Supreme Court ended its opinion with a sharp rebuke of Bateh:
[I]n light of this prosecutor’s ‘track record,’ we must repeat the following observation made by this Court almost forty years ago: . . . The record here suggests that the objectionable arguments were tendered calmly and in a fashion calculated to forestall a mercy recommendation.
By the luck of apparently bad defense lawyering, the State averted a death-sentence reversal in Michael Bell’s capital case. There, the Florida Supreme Court agreed with the defendant that “many of the comments that were the basis for our reversal of the penalty phase in Brooks [and Urbin] are similar to those that are the basis for Bell’s arguments in the instant case.” Yet, because the defense lawyer failed to object at the right moment, Bell’s claims fell flat.
The State was not so lucky in Ronnie Ferrell’s case; the Florida Supreme Court affirmed a lower court’s decision to overturn the death sentence because of Bateh’s misconduct in closing arguments. The Court found five separate grounds for the finding of misconduct, and came to the same conclusion it reached in Urbin and Brooks. Thus, in multiple capital cases, George Bateh’s prosecutorial approach cost the jurisdiction precious resources and led to unjust death sentences obtained in violation of individual constitutional rights.
If Bateh supervised Corey and sings her praises, that may be cause for concern. Perhaps it is no surprise that folks familiar with Jacksonville have indicated that “Corey has a history of overcharging and withholding evidence.” Indeed, Bateh’s influence may have a serious trickle-down quality. The National Review observed that “Corey seems to be determinedly purging from the ranks any who cross her and surrounding herself with inferiors whose ethical scruples appear to mirror her own.” Perhaps the coming election will have a bottom-up impact instead. If Corey is tossed from office, the retired Bateh’s apparently glossy reputation may be tarnished given that he is standing by her side.