Jacksonville, Florida’s state attorney has gained a national reputation for letting Trayvon Martin’s killer walk free, aggressively seeking the death penalty, charging juveniles as adults, and promoting polices that have disproportionately affected black defendants. On Tuesday, those tactics will likely spell her downfall.
Angela Corey is up for a third term as state attorney for Florida’s Fourth Judicial Circuit, an area that includes Jacksonville, the state’s largest city. First elected in 2008, Corey has become notorious for her involvement in a handful of high-profile cases. Corey is largely responsible for George Zimmerman’s acquittal and for the prosecution of Marissa Alexander, a black woman who fired a warning shot to protect herself from an abusive husband. After eight years in office, Corey has been dubbed the “cruelest prosecutor in America.”
“This city has been embarrassed across the country by Angela Corey,” Hank Coxe, a former president of the Florida Bar, told the New York Times.
Over the past few months, Black Lives Matter activists, Florida attorneys, religious leaders, and others have partnered to push her out. Though the next state attorney won’t be determined until November, Tuesday’s primary is crucial because the general election will be virtually uncontested.
Corey’s leading challenger is another former prosecutor, Melissa Nelson, who more recently and notably took on the case of Cristian Fernandez, a 12-year-old boy whom Corey prosecuted as an adult.
In 2011, under the director of Corey, a Jacksonville prosecutor charged Fernandez with first-degree murder after his younger half brother died of injuries to his skull. Fernandez’s mother was just 12 years old when he was born, and the boy had a difficult childhood. He spent time in foster care, was molested by one of his mother’s boyfriends, and witnessed another boyfriend shooting himself in the head.
Prosecutors claimed that Fernandez intentionally murdered his brother by smashing his head against a bookcase, but many doubted how much culpability Fernandez actually had. According to the Nation, the decision to try him as an adult meant that “Cristian would not only be kept in an adult jail pending the outcome of his case, but that he would face a mandatory sentence of life without parole before he’d even lost his baby fat.”
Nelson took on Fernandez’s defense pro bono, and eventually helped negotiate a deal in 2013 that had him plead guilty as a juvenile. Under the arrangement, he will be released from juvenile jail in January 2018 when he turns 19, when he will start eight years of probation. The deal was lauded by lawyers and criminal justice advocates for “salvaging a damaged child’s life.”
Nelson entered the state attorney’s race in May after being persuaded by many in the Jacksonville legal community. In less than four months, she has emerged from virtually no name recognition to mount a serious challenge against Corey.
On her website, Nelson calls herself a “strong Constitutional conservative” who has earned an “A” rating and an endorsement from the National Rifle Association. She also supports capital punishment, but she has criticized Corey for her treatment of victim’s families in death penalty cases. She has raised significantly more money than Corey, has the support of the largest newspaper in Jacksonville, and has vowed to “be a state attorney the people can be proud of.”
Echoes of Jim Crow
As mentioned, the winner of Tuesday’s primary will have a clear road to office given that the November general election will be uncontested — or virtually uncontested.
Under Florida law, primary elections are opened up to any registered voters when the general election will be uncontested. Because Corey, Nelson and their other challengers are all running as Republicans, Tuesday’s primary was supposed to be open to all Florida voters, a situation that would have likely hurt Corey given her poor reputation among progressives.
But there’s a loophole to that law, and the Corey campaign has seemingly used it to Corey’s advantage. Under a stipulation created in 2000, elections become closed if a write-in candidate files for the general election. In May, Corey’s campaign manager filed the paperwork for a Corey supporter to run as a write-in candidate.
As a result, only Republicans are permitted to vote in Tuesday’s election. Corey has denied that she had an involvement in closing the primary, and she has said that anyone who is interested in voting can change their registration to Republican in order to participate. “People who care won’t be disenfranchised,” she said. And in June, a judge dismissed a lawsuit trying to reopen the primary to the 440,000 Democratic and unaffiliated voters, a group that includes 96 percent of black voters.
The New York Times noted that the effects of closing the primary are reminiscent of the voting restrictions from the Jim Crow era. “Rodney Hurst, the NAACP leader, says that the coming election bears an uncomfortable resemblance to the all-white primaries that were a feature of Southern politics until the Supreme Court outlawed them in 1944,” Emily Bazelon reported.
A number of prominent anti-Corey progressives like Rev. Reginald Gundy have decided they do not want to be disenfranchised. According to the New York Times, Gundy and at least 4,200 voters have changed their registrations to Republican before this primary so they can participate.
Even the closed primary is unlikely to save Corey. A recent poll shows Nelson “trouncing” Corey, 52 percent to 20 percent. The Florida Times Union noted that if Corey loses, she would be the first incumbent Jacksonville state attorney to lose a reelection bid in modern history.