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The defeat of incumbent Angela Corey for the seat of State Attorney of Florida’s Fourth Judicial Circuit by challenger Melissa Nelson in the Republican primary is the latest upset in a growing trend of oustings of “law-and-order” incumbents in district attorney positions across the nation.

Nelson beat Corey by 38 percentage points – a resounding loss and the first of its kind in a contested state attorney election in Jacksonville. Some commentators, including Democratic strategist Howard Wolfson, have cautioned against optimism about Nelson as a “reformer.” (It is worth noting that Wolfson was a major supporter of stop-and-frisk in New York and therefore may be considered the pot calling the kettle black.) But this critique overlooks two important points:

(i)  There is a tendency among pundits to see a result like this as a “win” for Nelson, i.e. a vote of confidence in the challenger candidate, rather than a loss for Corey, i.e. a referendum on her track record. That would be a mistake in this instance. An incumbent doesn’t lose by 38 percentage points unless something about her existing record stinks to voters. Nelson said as much herself just a few days ago: “This wasn’t about me, it was a clear statement from the community about what they expect from the justice system and their elected officials.” Corey struggled under the weight of multiple controversies and low approval ratings before Nelson entered the race. As one defense attorney said, “Cheering the defeat of arguably America’s most awful prosecutor is not the same as embracing the new one.”

(ii) Nelson made an effort to differentiate herself from her opponent as a more measured candidate who would approach cases with a view to giving individualized consideration over pursuing aggressive sentencing policies, despite some of the “tough on crime” rhetoric she used in her campaign. Below are the reasons Corey received criticism for her past “law-and-order” record, and the ways that her challenger differentiated herself as the less punitive candidate.

Angela Corey (R) (incumbent) Melissa Nelson (R) (challenger)
Excessive use of death penalty Supports capital punishment but said she has interest in removing the power of a single person to make the decision about whether to pursue the death penalty. Prefers the idea of a panel, like that used by the Miami-Dade State Attorney, to determine whether death should be on the table.
Overzealous prosecutions, e.g.:

–          Marissa Alexander

–          Cristian Fernandez

–          Randal Ratledge

–          Ronald Thompson

Stated she would “not pursue minimum-mandatory sentences when they clearly weren’t justified.”
Punitive treatment of juveniles including high rates of direct-files to adult court. Stated that Corey does not use diversion programs enough to keep juveniles and first offenders out of the criminal justice system.
Pro-police – “Blue Lives Matter… we must honor those in authority.” Agreed there was a need for reform regarding police use-of-force against black residents.

There are a number of issues that voters could use to hold Melissa Nelson accountable in her new role should she win the general election in November (and she is slated to). She has promised to “earn the confidence of the community” and create a “fairer” criminal justice system, sentiments that could be demonstrated by:

  • Taking the death penalty off the table in all first-degree murder cases, or otherwise ensuring that mitigation evidence and a broad range of perspectives are properly taken into account before rendering a defendant death-eligible.
  • Limiting the number of children sent to adult court to a more reasonable number, i.e. treating a juvenile transfer to adult court in serious felony cases as an exception, not a rule.
  • Reviewing all cases in the time period where the state’s medical examiner was suffering from dementia to: (1) identify any potential misconduct on the part of the State and take appropriate action; and (2) identify those cases that might have been tainted by the failure to disclose exculpatory or impeachment material or by false or misleading testimony at trial.
  • Forgoing mandatory minimums sentences in favor of individualized sentencing recommendations in each case.

Until Nelson takes office and we start to see her use of discretion in action, there is no way of knowing what kind of candidate she will turn out to be. But let this election result stand as a warning: overzealousness, the flaunting of unchecked discretion and an obstinate “law and order” mentality will no longer be rewarded in Florida’s 4th Judicial Circuit.

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