elected Fourth Circuit State Attorney Melissa Nelson recently announced her leadership
team and laid out her plans to create a
fairer legal system after the district took some criticism for having one of
the highest death sentencing rates.
Mac D. Heavener III and L.E. 'Leh' Hutton will be Nelson's chief assistant state attorneys and principally responsible
for running the office, the Florida Times-Union reported recently. Timothy
Quick will serve as chief investigator.
Nelson explained that her
selections are based on their professionalism and integrity, as well her goals
to improve the legal climate in the district.
“Throughout their distinguished careers, Mac, Leh and Tim have conducted
themselves with unquestioned integrity,” Nelson was quoted as saying in the Times-Union. “They bring a wealth of experience to our office, and each
shares my commitment to tough but fair and ethical law enforcement.”
State Attorney Harry Shorstein told the newspaper that both appointments
were excellent hires, and he should know since he hired all three as
prosecutors early in their careers.
“(Heavener and Hutton are) totally ethical, very bright, highly regarded,”
Shorstein said. “They’ll reflect the characteristics and qualities that Melissa
will bring into the office.”
choices were made as she put together a team that could restructure the current
legal reputation in the Fourth District, especially with regards to conviction integrity.
Defender-elect Charlie Cofer met with Nelson in November to discuss her
selections and goals to create a conviction integrity unit. According to an article from the Florida Times-Union at the time, Cofer said it was a good sign
that Nelson is interested in creating such a qualified unit.
that she is able to do it,” he told the paper.
is taking cues from other states that have launched similar units to correct
overzealous legal systems.
conviction integrity units have been launched around the country, more than
half of them in the last two years, according to a report by the Quattrone
Center for the Fair Administration of Justice at the University of
Pennsylvania,” the November Times-Union article said. “The units are popular in the
northeastern United States, Texas, and some western states, but are virtually
unheard of in the southeast.”
philosophy behind these integrity units is to shift emphasis away from winning
convictions; rather, it is more important to seek justice on a fundamental
said she plans to meet with the New York-based Innocence Project, a nonprofit
devoted to reversing wrongful convictions, to discuss potentially creating such
a unit,” the Times-Union article said. “She said her main
concern is cost. The units have necessitated annual budgets of about $1 million
or more in major urban corridors such as Brooklyn and Los Angeles.”
to change the current system comes after Nelson defeated Angela Corey on August
30. Corey is known for presiding over some of the Fourth Judicial Circuit Court’s
most controversial cases.
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 press statement after the August election.
On September 7, the Florida Record also
reported on Harvard Law’s Fair Punishment Project’s assertions that Duval County’s prosecutorial misconduct
and racial bias has contributed to the county’s high death sentencing rate.
Such issues have created an environment for Nelson to step in with a team to
change the legal climate for the better.
“Duval County faces a lot of issues and rebuilding
trust in the community,” Rob Smith, senior research fellow and director
of Harvard Law’s Fair Punishment Project,
said in the Florida Record interview. “Nelson would be showing the
state’s willingness to reinvest in the county by not carrying out very
expensive capital prosecutions that do so much damage to the community,
especially communities of color who have such distrust for the death penalty.”