If the name "Angela Corey" sounds familiar, she's the woman who botched the George Zimmerman prosecution, prosecuted Marissa Alexander for self-defense, and is the woman The Nation magazine's Jessica Pishko called "The Cruelest Prosecutor in America" just two weeks ago.
During her eight-year tenure, Corey has garnered national attention in a pair of controversial trials. Her press conferences, for which she often wears a large gold cross like a Benedictine nun, have been broadcast nationwide. In 2012, she made headlines with her prosecution of Marissa Alexander, the mother who fired a gun to scare off an abusive husband (no one was injured in the incident). Corey charged Alexander with aggravated assault, which carried a minimum sentence of 20 years in prison. Her prosecution of Alexander spurred online petitions and protests from domestic-violence groups, who argued that Alexander was being overcharged for protecting herself. Alexander ultimately served three years in prison. In an interview, Corey told me that she didn’t understand why her actions were “newsworthy,” arguing that Alexander had endangered her children, who were in the next room. “How am I the bad guy in that situation?” she asked.
Then, in 2013, Corey failed to convict George Zimmerman in the death of Trayvon Martin. Some critics, like the now-retired Harvard law professor Alan Dershowitz, said in no uncertain terms that Zimmerman went free because Corey had overcharged him. (Corey responded by calling Harvard Law School and threatening to sue for libel.) As the special prosecutor in the case, Corey charged Zimmerman with second-degree murder, which requires intent, rather than a lesser charge like manslaughter. Corey’s office also concealed information from the defense that had been taken from Trayvon Martin’s cell phone, which was later revealed by one of her staff members. (Corey subsequently fired him.)
But these high-profile cases only hint at the governing ethos in Corey’s office. In nearly every relevant category, Duval County (by far the largest in the Fourth Circuit) embodies the outdated ideas that have fueled mass incarceration in this country—theories that everyone from the Obama administration to the Koch brothers have declared useless. In 2010, Duval had the highest incarceration rate in Florida—significantly higher than every jurisdiction of comparable size or larger, even though crime everywhere in the state was at a historic low. Despite this fact, Corey has opposed efforts to change the sentencing structure for nonviolent offenses to alleviate overcrowding at local jails.
Duval is one of the few counties in America in which the number of death sentences hasn’t decreased—a significant outlier during a decade of nationwide decline. One in four Florida death sentences comes from Duval, even though it has less than 5 percent of the state’s population; per capita, it’s the highest in the nation. Corey’s top homicide prosecutor, Bernie de la Rionda, is known for seeking the death sentence even when circumstances seem to weigh against it. For example, Michael Shellito was convicted of homicide and sentenced to death in the 1990s, when he was 19. There is extensive evidence that Shellito was suffering from severe mental illness and has a low IQ. The Florida Supreme Court overturned the death sentence, yet de la Rionda, acting at Corey’s behest, filed an appeal in the decision. One recent case is that of James Xavier Rhodes, a now-24-year-old man who is facing a death sentence for shooting a young woman at a MetroPCS store. Darlene Farrah, the victim’s mother, has asked Corey to grant her daughter’s killer a plea deal for a life sentence—to no avail.
During her first year in office, Corey doubled the number of felony cases in which minors were tried as adults. According to Human Rights Watch, the Fourth Circuit sends 75 percent of the young people charged as adults to prison or jail—the highest rate in the state. (By contrast, Miami-Dade County weighs in at around 12 percent.) This suggests that Corey is less likely than other state attorneys to consider alternatives to prison time.
Yet Corey argues that her decisions as a prosecutor couldn’t possibly be to blame for these disproportionate numbers. “We have so many sets of rules we are bound to follow,” she said. “There are so many checks and balances.”
And now, two weeks after that article was written, Angela Corey has been removed from office by voters. Part of last night's Florida primary vote saw state prosecutor Angela Corey go down in flames to a relatively unknown challenger, Melissa Nelson, who rolled over Corey in the contest.
The election caps a dizzying rise for Nelson and an equally shocking fall for Corey, one of the most polarizing political figures in Jacksonville history who generated national attention and enormous criticism for her prosecutions of George Zimmerman, Marissa Alexander, 12-year-old Cristian Fernandez and many others. Corey will depart office in the first week of January as the first incumbent state attorney in modern history to lose a contested election.
Nelson must still defeat write-in candidate Kenny Leigh in the general election before she officially becomes the state-attorney elect, but no write-in candidate has ever been elected to a state attorney position in Florida and Leigh has not raised any money or made any campaign appearances.
Until Nelson entered the race Corey was largely seen as a lock to win a third term despite numerous controversies and low public approval ratings. But Nelson hit the ground running, raising over $1 million and getting support from many in the legal and business community.
Corey attempted to counter by hyping the support she had received from elected officials like Jacksonville Mayor Lenny Curry, Sheriff Mike Williams and other current and former elected officials. Williams and other law enforcement officers touted Corey, her experience and toughness in ads supporting her. But that support never seemed to convince voters they wanted to keep Corey.
The first poll that came out after Nelson entered the race showed her with a 10-point lead. That expanded to a massive 32-point lead in a poll that was released last week.
Nelson campaigned on a platform of bringing integrity to the office and said Corey had lost the trust of the community with her actions.
For once, Florida does the right thing. Good job Gunshine State.