JACKSONVILLE – Angela Corey, the Florida prosecutor who presided over
some the 4th Judicial Circuit Court’s most controversial cases of the past
several years, lost her bid for re-election Aug. 30 to Melissa Nelson.
Corey’s loss was celebrated
by defense lawyers, university professors and celebrities who issued statements
of support for Florida’s prosecutorial change.
“Corey’s loss is an
encouraging sign that the public will no longer tolerate overzealous and unprincipled
criminal prosecutions, including women and children,” Mary Anne Franks, a law professor
at the University of Miami, said in a statement on Aug. 30.
Nelson joined the race in May, filing the day and hour of the
deadline to enter. Garnering support and campaign
donations, she surfaced as the Republican primary winner with more than 64 percent
of the vote compared to Corey’s 26 percent.
“I spent months deliberating whether to run or not, I finalized my decision and
filed on the deadline,"
Nelson told the Florida Record.
"My political team of experts devised a ‘short-sprint’
campaign that contributed to the energy and momentum. The response from the
public has been nothing like I’ve ever experienced.”
Nelson said she has been responding to requests for comments from
“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,” she said.
Nelson grew up in
Tallahassee and graduated from the University of Florida law school. She has a
close history with the office and Corey, having spent 12 years working for the 4th
Judicial Circuit State Attorney. Nelson resigned 10 months after Corey took office
in 2009 to accept a role with the international law firm McGuireWoods.
Nelson was also part
of the pro bono team in 2013 who defended 12-year-old Cristian Fernandez when
Corey charged him with first-degree murder and tried him as an adult for the
death of his 2-year-old half-brother. Fernandez was accused of shoving the toddler into a bookshelf,
causing brain injuries he succumbed to days later. Fernandez was the youngest
person charged as an adult with first-degree murder in Jacksonville history. He
later pleaded guilty as a juvenile to manslaughter and aggravated battery and
was sentenced to prison until he turns 19.
In concert with
Nelson’s win, a report was released by Harvard’s group The Fair Punishment
Project (FPP) putting additional focus on Florida’s prosecutorial misconduct
and need for change. The Florida
on FPP’s assertions that Duval County’s prosecutorial misconduct and racial
bias has contributed to the county’s high death sentencing rate.
Rob Smith, a member of the FPP, made statements
regarding Nelson’s ability to change the county if she wins by choosing to
remove the death penalty along with Bernie de la Rionda, whom he believes is
also part of Duval County’s problem.
Nelson said she would be reluctant to comment on the
report without reading it first, but said the death penalty is currently in a state
of flux with the Florida Supreme Court. Florida is only one of five states that
do not require unanimity in its juries’ votes for the death penalty against
defendants. As such, a jury vote of 7-5 would result in a death penalty
sentence. The U.S. Supreme Court struck down Florida’s death penalty scheme
last year citing it as unconstitutional.
Florida Legislature, in response to the Supreme Court’s
ruling, passed a bill in 2015 requiring a jury vote of at least 10-2 but did
not require unanimity. Subsequently, a circuit judge in Miami-Dade ruled that a
10-2 vote is still unconstitutional. The decision now rests with the Florida Supreme
Court. The issue posed if the Florida Supreme Court rules to require jury unanimity
in a death penalty vote is the retroactive requirements in its application; in
particular, how it will affect those sitting on death row inmates sentenced to
death by juries without unanimous votes will be the next challenge.
“I think in every issue that impacts the justice
system, bringing together different perspectives, even contradictory ones, is a
great thing for the community and I’ll always be committed to listening to
others’ ideas to determine how to do things better,”
Nelson said in response to Smith’s recommendation she remove the
"The death penalty is the most serious decision
and undertaking of the state attorney, so the philosophy and the approach of
the elected state attorney is most important. I have been studying different
jurisdictions and how they approach the death penalty and Miami-Dade uses a
panel to decide whether to pursue it so it is not a singular decision. I think it’s
a great idea. It protects everybody and the public can have more confidence in
She said she has interest in removing the power of a single
person making a decision to pursue the death penalty in the 4th
Judicial Circuit and will continue to research jurisdictions and methods in
order to make the best decisions surrounding changes she intends to implement.
“I have to earn the confidence of the community
through my actions," she said. "I have other areas in the office where implementing
processes that provide transparency to the public and makes the office
accountable will restore confidence in the public that justice is being served
Nelson said she recognizes the power every elected district
attorney has in the United States and wants checks and balances to ensure they act
transparently and fairly.
"I’m recognized for being both tough on
crime, but also being fair," she said. "I will approach every case individually and ensure
the punishment aligns with the crime.”
In response to the press coverage, Nelson said she does
not feel overwhelmed, she is ready to roll up her sleeves and start making
“I will bring a new and different vision for the justice system as a whole in
that office and I am excited that the community will see some good changes.”