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Judicial candidates stick to backgrounds // GROUP 3

In the race for 5th Judicial Circuit judge, group 3, voters hear three voices delivering the same message: My background makes me the best candidate.

Lady Lake resident Barbara Gurrola is a former junior high school English teacher of 11 years who has a private law practice in Ocala, handling civil and criminal cases.

Curtis Neal of Inverness was a Florida Highway Patrol trooper for five years and has been with a local law firm since 1983.

Ocala resident Willard Pope has been an assistant state attorney in Ocala for a year and spent a decade as a Marion County sheriff's deputy.

Unless one candidate captures 50 percent of the vote plus one on Tuesday, the top two vote-getters will meet in a runoff in November.

The winner is likely to sit in Inverness, where a position opened when Judge Hale Stancil asked to be transferred to Sumter County to replace retiring Judge John W. Booth.

Candidates in this non-partisan contest hesitate to prescribe sweeping changes or criticize their opponents. Each has run a clean campaign, touting experience alone.

Gurrola, 53, was the only circuit judge candidate in the state to qualify for the ballot by collecting thousands of signatures. She said the effort put her in touch with the community and is proof of the energy she would have in office.

"I would appreciate the opportunity to serve," she said.

Gurrola, who made an unsuccessful bid for circuit judge in 1994, said she has more jury trial experience than her competitors. While an assistant state attorney in 1990, Gurrola was recognized for handling more trials than any other prosecutor in the 5th Circuit.

She estimates that she has tried about 50 criminal jury cases and about 100 non-jury cases.

Gurrola, who became an attorney in the late 1980s, said she offers hard work and experience working with youth. Her resume includes time as a homemaker, an office manager for a construction company, the owner of an advertising agency and a real estate associate.

Neal, 41, said he has been a member of the Florida Bar longer than his opponents, making him the right choice. Because he has lived in Inverness for 13 years, Neal said, he is the most stable candidate and can ensure a smooth transition.

Though he acknowledges that he has little experience with jury trials, Neal said courtroom rules and procedures can easily be translated from the civil to the criminal realm. As judge, he said, he would set hearing times to reduce waiting, minimize the impact of divorce on children and reduce backups on the docket.

He said an effective judge studies a case before it comes to court and keeps up with changes in the law. Neal was a candidate for County Court judge in 1990 but withdrew from the race. Twice he has been a finalist for appointment to the bench.

At Fitzpatrick & Fitzpatrick, Neal said, he has been exposed to most kinds of cases and is a certified family law mediator.

Pope said he has spent most of his adult life in public service, which would help him apply the law fairly to all people.

Pope, 43, was a Marion County sheriff's deputy until 1983, three years after he was shot in the face and lost an eye while on assignment with the SWAT team.

Were it not for the shooting, Pope said, he probably would have stayed in law enforcement. Instead, he went to law school, returned to the Sheriff's Office as a legal adviser and worked briefly in private practice.

He advocates better use of judicial rules to keep cases progressing and using the upper range of sentencing guidelines in some cases to ensure that criminals are properly punished. Pope has tried 19 jury and 21 non-jury cases.

He started at the state attorney's office about a year ago and handles cases involving exploitation of the elderly, fraud and white-collar crime. After a career involving different aspects of the law, Pope said he is prepared to be a judge.

"Now is the time," he said, "because I'm at a mature point in my career."

BARBARA GURROLA, 53, was an assistant state attorney before operating a civil and criminal law practice in Lake County. Gurrola, who owns and breeds horses, became a lawyer in the late 1980s after teaching junior high school English in Illinois and Indiana for 11 years. She has been a homemaker and real estate sales associate. She unsuccessfully campaigned for a circuit judgeship in 1994. Gurrola is married and has three children.

ASSETS: law firm, home, cash.

LIABILITIES: bank loan.

SOURCE OF INCOME: private law firm.

CURTIS NEAL, 41, was a Florida trooper for five years in Broward and Marion counties. Neal, who has worked at the law firm Fitzpatrick and Fitzpatrick since he moved to Inverness in 1983, was twice a finalist for an appointment to the circuit bench. He is past president of the Citrus County Bar Association, past member of the Inverness Rotary Club and past officer and director of the county chamber of commerce. He is married and has two children.

ASSETS: home, lot, pension.

LIABILITIES: mortgage, loans.

SOURCE OF INCOME: law firm salary.

WILLARD POPE, 43, has been an assistant state attorney for a year, prosecuting white collar crimes and fraud. He was a Marion County sheriff's deputy for 10 years before leaving to get his law degree. He returned to become a staff attorney for six years. He also was an attorney for Marion County's Code Enforcement Board. He is married and has four children.

ASSETS: none listed.

LIABILITIES: student and car loans.

SOURCE OF INCOME: state attorney's office, Citrus County School Board, Central Florida Community College.

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