Nel's New Day

August 31, 2016

Florida: Rubio In for Now, Corey Out

Florida’s primary yesterday had bad news and good news. GOP Sen. Marco Rubio is still on the path to re-election after defeating his Trump-supported opponent. He won’t promise to stay the entire six years if elected, obviously using the Senate as a stepping stone for another presidential run in 2020. Whatever Rubio promises, however, is always subject to change, for example, his assertion—10,000 times by his own count—that he wouldn’t run for re-election. Within months, he made these claims: people who don’t want to vote, shouldn’t run for the Senate; all government workers who don’t do their jobs should be fired; he needs to vote only on important issues; and “there is really no other job in the country where if you don’t do your job, you don’t get fired.” The last one was said on the Senate floor, and he’s right—while he takes home $174,000 every year. He said that he didn’t need to vote because he was running for president.

Although Rubio never used the word “hate” for his feelings about the Senate, he did say that “we’re not going to fix America with senators and congressmen.” After Rubio had possibly the worst voting record ever in the Senate, missing almost one-third of his votes last year, newspapers such as Florida’s Sun-Sentinel, which had originally endorsed Rubio, called on him to “resign, not rip us off.”

The good news from yesterday’s Florida primary is that 4th Judicial State Attorney Angela Corey lost to a little-known corporate lawyer and former prosecutor, Melissa Nelson, 64 to 26 percent. Nelson still has to defeat write-in candidate Kenny Leigh in the general election, but no write-in candidate has ever been elected to such a position. Leigh has made no campaign appearances and not raised any money. Corey departs the office as the first incumbent state attorney in “modern history” to lose a contested election.

corey-AP_imgPeople may remember Angela Corey as the woman who botched the prosecution of George Zimmerman and saved him from prison after he stalked and killed teenager Trayvon Martin. But the Florida state attorney has a much broader reputation in destroying lives.

Corey was the person who put Marissa Alexander into prison for 20 years after she fired shots into a wall to protect herself from her abusive husband. In Florida, the “stand your ground” law seems to apply only to non-black males. A public outcry got Alexander another trial, but Corey was determined to put her back for 60 years. Alexander finally managed a plea that kept her under house arrest for three years. Two years before Alexander’s conviction, Corey’s territory, Duval County, had the highest incarceration rate in the state despite an historic low of crime in Florida.

With under five percent of Florida’s population, Duval County has 25 percent of the state’s death sentences and one of fewer than 20 counties that handed out more than five death sentences from 2010 to 2015. Two-thirds of the death sentences between 2009 and 2014 were for blacks, including 19-year-old Michael Shellito who suffers from extreme mental illness and has a low IQ.

cristianCristian Fernandez, 12, was another of Corey’s victims. Five years ago, he was questioned with no adult present and then convicted of killing his two-year-old brother, David. The children were left alone, and their mother waited over eight hours to take David to a hospital after Cristian said the toddler had hurt himself. She was sentenced to probation with no jail time. After Cristian said that he had pushed David against a bookshelf, he was charged with first-degree murder as an adult.

Florida law requires intent to kill for first-degree murder and carries a mandatory life sentence; in Corey’s terrain, all juveniles charged with murder are charged as adults, 1,475 in the Jacksonville area as compared to 34 in Miami-Dade (the most populated judicial district with higher rates of youth) between 2009 and 2013. The U.S. Supreme Court ruled that juveniles cannot be sentenced with mandatory life imprisonment but can still be charged as adults. According to this ruling, neuroscience shows that young people, because of their “immaturity, recklessness and impetuosity,” are less culpable than adults.

To protect juveniles in adult prisons from being physically assaulted or raped, these inmates were typically put into complete isolation until President Obama banned this practice earlier this year. Adult prisons have no educational or counseling facilities—no opportunity for rehabilitation. Put into solitary, Cristian had two visits from a mental-health counselor in 30 days along with a few phone calls.

Corey’s office also blackmails juveniles to plead guilty to the maximum juvenile sentence by threatening them with charging them as adults. She had strong support from elected public defender Matt Shirk, who is supposed to be on the defendant’s side. He fired most of the longtime public defenders in the office and appointed his friend Refik Eler as his second-in-command. Shirk was investigated by the Florida Commission on Ethics for violations including sexually harassing women he hired and then firing them because his wife threatened him with divorce if he didn’t. The Florida Commission on Ethics suggested that Shirk resign immediately; he didn’t.

Second-in-command Eler was cited four times by Florida courts for ineffective counsel, including telling clients not to argue that they have a mental disease or defect in death-penalty cases. Eight of Eler’s clients have gone to death row, more than any other Florida public defender. Some indigent defendants now opt to represent themselves, for example a man who lost a 12-month plea deal after the public defender failed to follow up. The man was released after seven years because he filed a federal habeas petition.

Cristian’s fate changed when pro bono lawyers took up his cause, but Corey retaliated by filing another adult charge of Cristian sexually abusing his five-year-old brother. Investigators interrogated Cristian with neither his lawyer nor his guardian ad litem notified, and Shirk continued to sabotage Cristian’s case although he no longer had any involvement. Cristian’s new lawyers reviewed unexamined evidence and built a case for the boy’s defense. They managed a plea deal that put him into a juvenile therapeutic facility rather than risk a jury trial that could lead to an adult prison. Cristian may be released in two years when he is 19 and then remain on parole for five years.

Currently, Corey is running a smear campaign against Darlene Farah, the mother of a murdered daughter. Farah opposes the death penalty for her child’s killer, and Corey accuses her of being “more interested in publicity than actually grieving for her daughter.” James Rhodes, the 24-year-old black man convicted of the killing, has not been sentenced because a temporary halt on death penalty sentences. The Supreme Court ruled the state’s death penalty law to be unconstitutional because judges could overrule juries and sentence defendants to death. Corey has tried to get support from Farah’s teenage son, Caleb, by showing him video of his sister’s murder. After briefly caving in, Caleb supports a life sentence for Rhodes.

As the district’s state attorney, Corey is the primary advocate for those sentences, making her one of the deadliest prosecutors in the country. Corey also used $108,439 of taxpayer money to upgrade her pension plan, and $425,000 in bonuses for her office staff. Corey was able to maneuver around a Florida statute that bans such bonuses for public employees by claiming the disbursements were “one time” pay raises.

Nelson’s win is not unadulterated good news: she was endorsed by the NRA who thought that Zimmerman should not have been charged at all. After a prosecutor for 12 years in the 4th Judicial Circuit State Attorney’s office, however, she switched to private practice and was one of the defense attorneys for Cristian Fernandez. Maybe there’s hope for kids in the northeastern Florida judicial district. 

Trump Watch: Before Trump’s immigration speech in Arizona, he flew to Mexico to meet with President Enrique Peña Nieto. After the meeting, Trump said that they didn’t discuss who would pay for Trump’s wall between the U.S. and Mexico, but Peña Nieto said that he “made it clear” to Trump that Mexico would not pay for the wall. The president of Mexico also told Trump that illegal immigration from Mexico to the U.S. peaked years ago and complained to him about the vast number of guns that crossed the border and made Mexico’s drug wars much worse. Trump did get his photo-op with Peña Nieto, who has a 23 percent approval rating in Mexico.

Tonight, Trump gave his ten points of controlling undocumented immigrants with no solid methods of doing so, much of the content expanded from his GOP convention speech. Some Republicans who want more voter support for Trump called it a “softening”; Ann Coulter heard it the same way that many other listeners did. She called it a magnificent speech because there was “no pivot. Illegals will have one path to legal status: To go home and apply through legal channels like everyone else.” The only difference between Trump’s lies and white nationalism tonight was that he read it from a teleprompter.

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