BROOKSVILLE — Don Barbee's physical stature alone wouldn't intimidate. But in the courtroom, the prosecutor takes on the tough persona of a bulldog.
He is intense, focused and rarely cedes his ground. The words colleagues most often use to describe the 39-year-old include aggressive and hard-nosed.
"It's a reputation I hope I earned," Barbee acknowledges without hesitation, "but I hope to be fair."
Barbee is moving out of the courtroom, for the most part, as he ascends to his new role as supervisor of the Hernando County State Attorney's Office.
In this position, the six-year veteran prosecutor will make the final call on whether to file or drop criminal charges. He also will handle extradition cases, public records requests and internal office matters.
It's a high-profile job that affects countless lives. At the same time, these decisions are often tough to understand when the legal standard and sentencing guidelines don't match the public's perception of justice.
Barbee, who lives in Hernando County with his wife and two young daughters, said he hopes to better educate the community about his office's actions.
"I want everybody who has an issue to understand why a decision has been made," he said during a recent interview in his Brooksville office. "I want to make sure the victims feel as good as they can at the end of the day. That they received some vindication for what they suffered."
Barbee's motivations and aggressive style were forged during his seven-plus years a police officer patrolling the streets in Fairfield, Conn. He served as a patrol officer, school resource officer and D.A.R.E. instructor.
At the same time, he earned a bachelor's degree in political science and criminal justice at Sacred Heart University in 1994, and a master's degree in sociology and criminal behavior from Southern Connecticut State University in 1996.
From there, Barbee enrolled in law school at Quinnipiac University. He retired as a police officer in 1997 before he came south to study his last year at the University of Florida's College of Law.
After graduation in 1998, he joined a private firm in Tampa delving into complex labor-law cases. But it didn't last long. A police officer at heart, he went back to carrying a badge and gun within two years. "The hours and the money-driven culture (at the law firm) wasn't for me," Barbee explained.
He joined the FBI in March 2000 as a special agent in the Boston bureau. He investigated insurance fraud, organized crime and money laundering. He put his law degree to work as the division's legal adviser.
After the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, the mood in the Boston division was "pretty volatile," Barbee said. The birth of his second child prompted him to look for a more stable situation, which brought him back to Florida.
He joined the 5th Circuit's State Attorney's Office in 2002, beginning in the Lake County branch before transferring to Brooksville in 2004. He counts as mentors his boss, Brad King, and former prosecutor Willard Pope, who is now a judge. Both served as police officers before becoming lawyers.
"Despite it being less money (than private practice), I took the job because of my philosophy for doing the right thing," said Barbee, who is also a reserve Hernando County sheriff's deputy.
Teaching is priority
Even though he intends to shed his 150-case docket soon, Barbee plans to keep one foot in the courtroom by prosecuting a few high-profile cases, including the defendants charged with the brutal attack on John Kelly, known locally as "the walker," and the Orange County man charged with the robbery and attempted murder of Jim Oleson, the owner of Boyett's Grove.
In the courtroom, Barbee also sees an opportunity to help mentor the office's three new prosecutors who work on misdemeanor and juvenile cases.
Teaching "is one of my favorite things to do," said Barbee, who is also an adjunct professor at Pasco-Hernando Community College and a legal instructor at the Withlacoochee Technical Institute in Inverness.
His background in both sides of the law helped get him the job, said King, the state attorney for the 5th Judicial Circuit, which includes Hernando.
"He has an extensive background in law enforcement … and he is a very good trial lawyer," King said. "I think he has all the skills necessary to take over."
King also wanted to appoint someone who knew Hernando. So many local prosecutors in the district live outside the county where they work, he explained. "He's hometown. He lives there," King said of Barbee. "He's going to be here, I hope, for the long haul."
John Frank can be reached at email@example.com or (352) 754-6114.