Politics and Justice in Florida

by Ian Tuttle
State GOP leaders politicized the Trayvon Martin case.

Angela Corey, the state attorney who has become a household name as the prosecutor in the Zimmerman trial, has a reputation: for overcharging, withholding evidence, and retaliating, professionally and personally, against critics. But she was handpicked by the Florida governor and attorney general for the Zimmerman case.

Why?

It’s a question that may never be satisfactorily answered — but the evidence suggests the perfect storm in the Sunshine State: a maelstrom of weak-kneed Republicans, coercion, cronyism, and plain bad judgment.

By way of background: Florida has 20 circuit courts, which act as the state’s highest trial courts and its lowest appellate courts. Each circuit is headed by a state attorney, a party-affiliated prosecutor who is elected by popular vote. The state attorney’s office oversees the prosecution of crimes committed within its circuit, which typically comprises a handful of counties.

While state attorneys work primarily in their own circuits, they also frequently end up on the move. Because of conflicts of interest, state attorneys recuse themselves, and the governor appoints the state attorney from another circuit to prosecute that particular case. It’s a common practice. But in the Zimmerman case, that procedure seems to have taken an uncommon turn.

Harry Shorstein, the five-term state attorney who preceded Angela Corey, tells me that “in the overwhelming majority of cases, the conflict for the state attorney is obvious”: The person arrested is, or is related to, an employee of the state attorney’s office; persons in the case are politically connected to the attorney; etc. These are the majority of cases, and they are dealt with simply. The state attorney recuses himself with a letter to the governor, and the governor’s general counsel appoints another state attorney to take over. The process is conducted almost always through the general counsel’s office (the governor merely rubber-stamps the executive order), and usually, though not always, the state attorney assigned to the case is from an adjacent circuit.

How common are such assignments? According to the record of executive orders available at Florida governor Rick Scott’s website, there were 157 in 2012. In March 2012, the month that Angela Corey was assigned to the Zimmerman case, there were 19. Of those 19, Zimmerman’s was the only case in which the prosecutor assigned was from a nonadjacent circuit.

That’s not damning, of course. But it’s curious.

Shorstein adds another tidbit: It’s a matter of both professional ethics and “legal and common sense” that the prosecutor elected to handle the crimes in a particular circuit should be the one to do so in as many cases as possible. And it was Shorstein’s policy as state attorney to insist that, when he was called in, the state attorney he was replacing had asked to be recused. The alternative, he says, was bad blood and suspicion from the figures from whom he needed cooperation. He says that, despite being assigned to a handful of “high-profile” cases and dozens of minor ones outside the Fourth Circuit, he was never “ordered” to take a case by any governor (he served under four of them).

That generally hands-off approach from Florida’s governor was not the case in March 2012.

Norm Wolfinger, at the time of Trayvon Martin’s death, was the state attorney for Florida’s 18th Circuit, which includes Sanford, Fla. Following the investigation by local law enforcement under then–police chief Bill R. Lee Jr., who concluded that there was insufficient evidence to arrest George Zimmerman, Wolfinger’s office reviewed the investigation and agreed, declining to bring charges. But the resulting public outcry compelled Wolfinger to open the case to further review; he announced that he would convene a Seminole County grand jury to investigate.

Wolfinger never had the chance. On March 22, less than a month after the shooting, Wolfinger recused himself and Corey was assigned as special prosecutor.

But where was the conflict of interest? That is the crucial question — and more than a year later, there is no answer. In fact, the evidence suggests that Wolfinger’s recusal may have been less than voluntary.

On March 22, Rick Scott’s office issued a press release announcing, “The Governor and Attorney General reached out to State Attorney Norman Wolfinger today. After the conversation, Wolfinger decided to step down from this investigation and turn it over to another state attorney.”

Was Wolfinger coerced? He was unavailable for comment, but his letter of recusal to the governor is suggestive: “In the interest of the public safety of the citizens of Seminole County and to avoid even the appearance of a conflict of interest . . .” Then, later: “This request is being made in light of the public good with the intent of toning down the rhetoric and preserving the integrity of this investigation.” Compared with the reasons cited by other state attorneys for recusing themselves, Wolfinger’s are markedly vague, and he even takes the opportunity to reassert that his office remains fully capable of conducting a “fair and impartial” investigation. And, of course, the letter came only after a conversation with both the state’s governor and attorney general.

What motive might the state’s highest officials have for leaning on this particular state attorney? Public pressure to make an arrest was rapidly mounting in Florida and across the nation. On the night of Corey’s appointment, Al Sharpton led 8,000 people — many bused in from other states — in a rally for “justice” in Sanford.

But there are behind-the-scenes connections that may be even more important. On March 20, Benjamin Crump, attorney for the Martin family, revealed the contents of a purported interview with “DeeDee,” Trayvon Martin’s “16-year-old” “girlfriend,” who, Crump claimed, was on the phone with Martin when he was killed. It was a bombshell revelation — and it was misleading, at best. “DeeDee” turned out to be the now-famous Rachel Jeantel, not 16 years old (she’s 18, and so not a minor, as Crump claimed), not Trayvon’s girlfriend, and a witness whose unreliability and penchant for fabrication were exposed by Zimmerman attorney Don West at trial, in the course of an incisive two-day cross-examination.

But it had the effect Crump wanted, which was to galvanize the attention of media and public figures near and far — one of whom was Pam Bondi, Florida’s first-term attorney general. Appearing on CNN’s Piers Morgan Tonight on March 27, 2012, Bondi remarked: “[Special prosecutor Angela Corey is] conducting a thorough investigation because we need to get Trayvon’s girlfriend to cooperate which I don’t know if was happening previously. And they may have had good reason for that. But she’s cooperating now. And again, a thorough investigation is being done to ensure that justice is sought for that family.”

The circumstances of Crump’s “interview” with “DeeDee” — and the suspicious way he made its “contents” public — raised doubts from the beginning. So why did the ploy succeed with Bondi? She gave Morgan the answer: “Well, Piers, first let me tell you. I’ve spoken to Trayvon’s parents. They are amazing, sweet, kind people. My heart goes out to them. I’m actually friends with their attorneys Ben Crump and Daryl Parks. They’re wonderful lawyers who are representing them.”

That friendship likely began with the case of Martin Lee Anderson, a 14-year-old Florida boy who died in 2006 at one of the state’s juvenile “boot camps,” all five of which were subsequently closed. Anderson’s case became a national story, with accusations that the guards who allegedly caused Anderson’s death were racially motivated, and counter-accusations that the politicization of the case had led to coerced statements and trumped-up charges. (Sound familiar?) Parks & Crump, the law firm established by the Martin family’s attorneys, Daryl Parks and Benjamin Crump, represented Anderson’s family. It is the first case they cite on their firm’s “Client Satification [sic]” page: “Parks & Crump generated widespread public outcry in this case with marches and demonstrations.” Bondi was the assistant state attorney who prosecuted the seven guards and one nurse charged with aggravated manslaughter of a child. The jury deliberated only 90 minutes before returning a verdict of not guilty.

Bondi and Crump lost the case (though the family did end up receiving several million dollars from various government entities in “wrongful death” settlements), but Crump seems to have won Bondi’s trust.

What part could she play to forward his latest cause? Again, from her interview with Morgan:

I have no legal role as attorney general in the state of Florida. That authority is left to the state attorneys. But what I did do was I discussed with the governor the appointment of Angela Corey, a special prosecutor in Jacksonville who’s well removed from the case. She’s absolutely excellent. And the Florida Department of Law Enforcement [is] now involved in the case.

Rick Scott, Pam Bondi (whose office declined a request for comment), and Angela Corey were closely connected years before the Zimmerman trial. Corey was elected state attorney for Florida’s Fourth Judicial Circuit in August 2008, winning the Republican primary with 64 percent of the vote. Two years later, Scott ran for governor and Bondi for attorney general. Corey was a donor to both, contributing to Scott $300 and to Bondi $750. While serving as one of Bondi’s eight state campaign co-chairs, Corey appeared on the campaign trail for Scott, and she served on the transition teams of both officials following their successful campaigns.

“Well removed from the case,” to use Bondi’s phrase, Corey may have been — but several other state attorneys had that qualification, as well. Moreover, Corey’s reputation for overcharging — that is, for bringing more severe charges than what she could prove in court — was a poorly guarded secret. In such a high-profile case, one that called for prudence, dispassion, and a thoughtful consideration of the evidence, Corey seems to have been a particularly bad choice for the assignment.

At the crucial moment, required to choose between dutiful officials and the growing mob, Florida’s Republican leaders buckled.

— Ian Tuttle is an editorial intern at National Review.

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