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Pinellas-Pasco State Attorney Bernie McCabe says he'll seek one last term

For nearly two decades, Bernie McCabe has served as the top prosecutor for Pinellas and Pasco counties, helping to convict such criminals as triple-murderer Oba Chandler, cop killer Alfredie Steele Jr., and the thieving Rev. Henry Lyons Jr.

Now, as McCabe prepares to enter his 20th year as Pinellas-Pasco state attorney, he also has started to envision the end of his career.

McCabe, 64, said in a recent interview that he plans to run for re-election in 2012 and serve one last four-year term.

"At this point, I want it to be my final term," McCabe said. After that term ends in 2016, he said, "I'll be 69 and I'll have been in the business for 44 years and that's a nice career."

Though that means he wouldn't retire for another five years, it's worth noting because of the remarkable continuity in the state attorney's office.

The previous state attorney, Jimmy Russell, served from 1969 to 1992. By the end of his tenure, McCabe was Russell's chief assistant and heir apparent. McCabe ran for the office successfully in his only contested race in 1992, and has been re-elected without opposition since.

As he first took office, McCabe selected fellow prosecutor Bruce Bartlett as his chief assistant, and the two have worked side-by-side for two decades.

Bartlett, 57, said recently that "I would actively pursue that position" after McCabe steps away from his job as state attorney. Bartlett said he is aware that getting the job would not be "a rite of passage," but rather, a decision made by voters of Pinellas and Pasco counties.

McCabe said he is satisfied with the course of his career, though it has been marked by some disappointments, such as the abortive prosecution of the Church of Scientology in connection with the death of church member Lisa McPherson. McCabe dropped the case after the medical examiner changed her findings about the death.

McCabe also says that because of tight budgets, "the last six years or so has been very, very frustrating for me."

He praises the "superior legal staff and support staff "of his office, but said he has not been able to give them cost-of-living raises for years, and not nearly enough merit increases.

Over the years, the office has won many big cases. These include Chandler, the recently executed man who sank a mother and two daughters into Tampa Bay; Steele, who shot and killed popular Pasco Sheriff's Lt. Charles "Bo" Harrison; and Lyons, the St. Petersburg pastor who diverted money from the National Baptist Convention.

More recent examples include the conviction of four men in a drive-by shooting that killed 8-year-old Paris Whitehead-Hamilton in St. Petersburg and the former Jabil Circuit vice president found guilty of killing his wife and her friend.

And there are more courtroom battles coming, such as the prosecution of Nicholas Lindsey, the teenager accused of fatally shooting St. Petersburg police Officer David S. Crawford.

Defense attorneys say McCabe has a reputation as a tough prosecutor. But he said he won't hesitate to drop a case if he doesn't have a good-faith belief his prosecutors can win a conviction.

In one recent example, he took the unusual step of deciding not to prosecute a man, Stephen Coffeen of St. Petersburg, who had smothered his father. McCabe said the evidence was strong that Coffeen was insane, and therefore not guilty under the law, at the time of the killing. The decision angered the victim's other son.

McCabe also has his attorneys conduct up-front and in-person investigations before deciding whether to formally charge people — as opposed to making such decisions mostly by reviewing police reports. Asking the witnesses and victims to come in for interviews takes more time at the outset, but is worth it, McCabe said.

"I think it helps the accused citizen, because we can … weed out the problematic cases," McCabe said. It also helps his attorneys learn more about the cases they do prosecute.

McCabe said he has a good relationship with another fixture of the Pinellas-Pasco legal scene, Public Defender Bob Dillinger, who has served since 1996.

And Dillinger agrees. Both say their attorneys fight aggressively on opposite sides in court. But the two often work together. They both serve on Pinellas County's Juvenile Welfare Board and often band together on matters of court funding or procedures.

Outside the office, McCabe's wife Denise said he's an excellent cook who enjoys whipping up steaks, caesar salad and homemade stuffing, and likes picking up a cookbook and "almost reading it like a novel."

Times Staff Writer Curtis Krueger can be reached at ckrueger@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8232

Pinellas-Pasco State Attorney Bernie McCabe says he'll seek one last term 12/23/11 [Last modified: Friday, December 23, 2011 9:39pm]
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