Melissa Nelson: 'I will bring a new and different vision for the justice system as a whole'

By Tara Mapes | Sep 9, 2016

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 the media.

“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 Record reported 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 death penalty.

"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 the decision.”

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 fairly."

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 changes.

“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.”

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