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In Pinellas-Pasco State Attorney race, a debate over the meaning of the law

In the first 6th Judicial Circuit prosecutorial race in 30 years, top prosecutor Bruce Bartlett will take on career public defender Allison Miller.
Career prosecutor Bruce Bartlett, left, and former assistant public defender Allison Miller are facing off in the first Pinellas-Pasco State Attorney race in 30 years.
Career prosecutor Bruce Bartlett, left, and former assistant public defender Allison Miller are facing off in the first Pinellas-Pasco State Attorney race in 30 years. [ DOUGLAS CLIFFORD, LAUREN WITTE | Douglas Clifford & Lauren Witte ]
Published Oct. 25, 2022

The race for Pinellas-Pasco State Attorney this year is historic.

Former assistant public defender and Democrat Allison Miller is taking on Republican top prosecutor Bruce Bartlett, who has spent more than four decades working in the office and was appointed interim state attorney last year after his predecessor, Bernie McCabe, died in office.

It is the first election for the job in 30 years. After McCabe defeated another prosecutor in 1992, he didn’t face any challengers for the remainder of his 28-year term. Bartlett served as chief assistant state attorney for nearly that entire time, and was appointed state attorney by Gov. Ron DeSantis after McCabe’s death.

The race could also be the first time in the office’s 110-year history that voters elect a woman as top prosecutor.

The election comes against the backdrop of a political struggle at the state attorney’s office just across Tampa Bay that could have implications for the Pinellas-Pasco race. In August, DeSantis ousted Hillsborough State Attorney Andrew Warren from office after Warren vowed not to prosecute abortions or gender-affirming care.

Bartlett and 10 other Florida state attorneys signed on to a Florida Sheriffs Association brief supporting DeSantis’ removal of Warren. Bartlett told the Tampa Bay Times in an interview that he believes Warren’s statements about refusing to prosecute abortions were out of line.

“I agree with the fact that state attorneys are charged with following the law and not making their own decisions as to the appropriateness of the law,” Bartlett said.

Miller, meanwhile, opposed the governor’s actions. Like Warren when he won office in 2016, Miller is a progressive outsider challenging a tough-on-crime incumbent. She has taken similar stances to Warren on abortion and the prosecution of low-level offenses. If elected, she plans to avoid prosecutions of simple marijuana possession and will seek to reform the bail system for low-level crimes.

Miller has couched her campaign promises in the language of prosecutorial discretion, saying she’ll review each case on an individual basis.

“I believe that everything I have said is in conformity with the law,” Miller said.

Yet Warren’s removal reveals a tension at the heart of the Pinellas-Pasco State Attorney’s race: how and when prosecutors should use their discretion — and what it means to follow the law.

“My life’s work”

On a Tuesday in late July, a steady flow of staff stopped by Bartlett’s office.

He sat at his desk, framed from behind with American and Florida flags and family photos. On the corner of his desk was a Bible with his name and “state attorney” engraved on it.

A division director dropped in to discuss an upcoming grand jury, as did an investigator. An intern came by and Bartlett gave him advice for his next year of law school.

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Bartlett, 68, is no stranger to the stream of employees in and out of his office — or late-night calls from those same staffers toiling away at a case. For nearly two-thirds of his career, he oversaw the internal affairs of the office as McCabe’s right-hand man.

With more than 40 years in the office under his belt, Bartlett could easily retire — and, indeed, he briefly did in 2014. But he says he’s not ready for that yet.

“My life’s work is in the office,” he said.

Bruce Bartlett the incumbent candidate running for State Attorney of the 6th Judicial Circuit chats with fellow attorney Rex Blake during a meet at Big Storm Brewery on July 27.
Bruce Bartlett the incumbent candidate running for State Attorney of the 6th Judicial Circuit chats with fellow attorney Rex Blake during a meet at Big Storm Brewery on July 27. [ LUIS SANTANA | Times ]

Bartlett has a reputation as a tough-on-crime prosecutor, an image he has emphasized on the campaign trail.

“I would never expect Bartlett to not enforce the law,” said Sam Williams, a Pasco defense attorney who previously worked with Bartlett as a prosecutor. At the same time, Williams said, Bartlett is “willing to listen” and will hear out defense attorneys’ arguments on behalf of their clients.

Bartlett has prosecuted some of Tampa Bay’s most high-profile killers, including Oba Chandler, who was executed for the 1989 murders of an Ohio woman and her daughters. Bartlett also worked on the teams that helped send people to prison for killing police officers over the years.

Since taking office, Bartlett has given all prosecutors email addresses, which McCabe refused to do out of concern that attorneys might say something inappropriate or unprofessional over email. Bartlett also started a diversion program for first-time DUI offenders and played a key role in the development of a mental health court that launched this fall.

Bartlett was appointed state attorney about halfway through fiscal year 2020-2021. During that year, Pinellas-Pasco circuit and county courts had more guilty pleas and convictions combined than any other judicial circuit in Florida.

According to data from the Office of the State Courts Administrator, 94.6% of cases in the Pinellas-Pasco Circuit Court ended in a guilty plea or conviction that same year. Only one region had a higher rate — Key West, which resolved fewer than 200 criminal cases.

While Bartlett has gained support from many prominent figures in the legal community, others see an office that’s a “good old boys’ club” resistant to examining racial disparities and in need of further modernization.

Bartlett said his office doesn’t make decisions based on race. He said the racial makeup of who has committed crimes in a given region may be skewed based on its demographics. But he said the way to address those differences is to look at underlying socioeconomic issues.

“There’s nobody in this office that looks at any of the files and makes a decision based on race,” he said in an interview. “And I wouldn’t have them if they did.”

State prosecutor Bruce Bartlett (right) talks to Teresa Kondek (left) during a break in the opening day in the penalty phase against Marco Antonio Parilla Jr., 27, who pleaded guilty to fatally shooting Tarpon Springs police officer Chales Kondek in 2014.
State prosecutor Bruce Bartlett (right) talks to Teresa Kondek (left) during a break in the opening day in the penalty phase against Marco Antonio Parilla Jr., 27, who pleaded guilty to fatally shooting Tarpon Springs police officer Chales Kondek in 2014. [ JIM DAMASKE | Tampa Bay Times ]

Megan Fernandez, an attorney who represented Pinellas Black Lives Matter protesters, believes Bartlett doesn’t pay enough attention to racial disparities. Fernandez was frustrated with the state attorney’s office’s handling of a case where a white counterprotestor pulled a gun at a Black Lives Matter protest in St. Petersburg in 2020 but did not face any criminal charges.

“I think it’s just an outdated, head-in-the-sand approach to racial justice,” Fernandez said. “And I think that’s what makes his response to Black Lives Matter so tone-deaf.”

St. Petersburg City Council member Deborah Figgs-Sanders said she thinks the office has sought unfair, heavy-handed punishments, particularly toward Black men.

“I just see Black males just suffering at the hand of the state attorney’s office,” she said.

Miller criticized Bartlett on social media after he answered a question at a recent debate about his efforts to make the state attorney’s office an inclusive workplace.

“(It’s) very difficult to get minorities to come and apply because they’re sought again by a lot of the big law firms out to meet their quotas in the outside world,” Bartlett said at the debate.

An outside perspective

In a crowded back room of O’Maddy’s Bar and Grille in Gulfport in early August, Miller gave a campaign pitch to about 75 supporters.

“I think a lot of people here probably know me as being a public defender,” Miller said to the crowd. It was work that shaped a large part of her identity, she said.

She compared her time as a public defender to the story of a man who tries to save all the starfish washed on the shore, tossing them back into the ocean one by one. The man’s actions mattered for each individual starfish, just as public defenders’ work matters for each individual client. But there was also an endless number of starfish washed on the beach.

“I have to be honest, after a while it does get harder and harder to carry that and look at all the other starfish on the beach that have been victimized and re-traumatized and abandoned by the criminal justice system,” Miller, 39, said.

She said she also knows what it’s like to be the victim of a violent crime. In college, Miller was sexually assaulted, she said. At the time, she didn’t report it out of fear others might say she didn’t do enough to fight off the assault or that people wouldn’t believe her.

Miller said she was also held at gunpoint during the robbery of an Orlando Walgreens when she was a teenager. While she is not named in court documents, her father is listed as a victim and a witness. She said her father asked that she not be named or participate in the prosecution of the crime because she was a minor and was having nightmares about the experience.

Allison Miller speaks during a candidates forum on Oct. 17 in Tarpon Springs.
Allison Miller speaks during a candidates forum on Oct. 17 in Tarpon Springs. [ CHRIS URSO | Times ]

Miller began her legal career at the 6th Judicial Circuit’s Public Defender’s Office in 2008 and worked there for nearly 13 years. She represented high-profile defendants such as Shelby Nealy, who is accused of killing his ex-wife and three of her relatives, and Javarick Henderson Jr., who is being tried as an adult after he was accused of killing his grandmother when he was 13.

After Miller announced her run for state attorney, she left the Public Defender’s Office to avoid potential conflicts of interest and began working as a private attorney consulting on capital cases across the state at the law firm Ripley, Whisenhunt in Pinellas Park.

Throughout her campaign, Miller has promised a number of changes to the state attorney’s office if elected.

Minors shouldn’t be charged as adults in most circumstances, she said. In fiscal year 2020-2021, the 6th Judicial Circuit had the highest number of juveniles charged as adults, according to data from the Florida Department of Juvenile Justice.

Misdemeanor thefts and driver’s license charges can be bumped up to felonies if the person accused of the crime has previously committed these offenses, but Miller believes these offenses shouldn’t be elevated to felonies in many cases. Miller also plans to stop seeking cash bail for minor, nonviolent crimes in many instances.

While she is morally opposed to capital punishment, Miller plans to consult a panel of at least three prosecutors to help her decide when to seek the death penalty. Former Orange-Osceola State Attorney Aramis Ayala took a similar approach in 2017 after the Florida Supreme Court ruled that she couldn’t refuse to seek the death penalty in all cases. Ayala, a Democrat, is now running for Florida attorney general.

Keesha Benson (left), a candidate for Pinellas County School Board District 3, speaks with Allison Miller (right), who is running for Pinellas-Pasco state attorney, on Sept. 7 in St.Petersburg.
Keesha Benson (left), a candidate for Pinellas County School Board District 3, speaks with Allison Miller (right), who is running for Pinellas-Pasco state attorney, on Sept. 7 in St.Petersburg. [ ANGELICA EDWARDS | Times ]

Miller has also proposed a civil rights unit that would include a branch for investigating wrongful convictions. She has pointed to the case of Gary Cannon, who is accused in the murder and rape of a Pasco County girl. Prosecutors have fought to maintain his conviction despite new evidence that defense attorneys say could show he’s innocent. Bartlett and Miller worked on opposite sides of the case.

Former chief assistant public defender John Swisher said he’s backing Miller because he thinks she will bring needed change to the office.

“If you seek justice, you’re not just seeking a conviction because a conviction may not be justice,” Swisher said.

If Miller is elected, she will have to make the transition from a defense attorney to prosecutor and gain the respect of attorneys in the office who backed Bartlett. And she will have to fight criticisms from those who say she lacks experience and will be soft on crime.

“My takeaway is that she’s actually anti-law enforcement,” said Pinellas Sheriff Bob Gualtieri, who has endorsed Bartlett.

Miller denies that accusation and says she has had friendly, professional relationships with police during her time as an attorney. And she points to her Florida Bar board certification in criminal trial law as proof that she has the knowledge needed to run a prosecutor’s office.

“Violent crime that happens now has to be prosecuted to the full extent of the law,” Miller said. “The point that I’m trying to make is we have to intervene way before it gets to that.”

Former Pinellas-Pasco Public Defender Bob Dillinger is also endorsing Bartlett, citing the prosecutor’s experience running the office. Dillinger said he has reservations about how Miller would be perceived as head of the prosecutor’s office.

“To be such a dedicated defense attorney, I would think would give at least an appearance to law enforcement or the public that the defense attorney mode of operation just can’t be switched on and off,” Dillinger said.

Interpretations of the law

This summer, after the U.S. Supreme Court struck down Roe v. Wade and legal battles played out in Florida courts over the state’s 15-week abortion ban, state attorneys were thrust into the spotlight, as they will have the final say in how and when abortions are prosecuted if bans are enacted.

Perhaps more than any other issue, the debate illustrates Bartlett’s and Miller’s distinct attitudes toward the law and prosecutorial discretion — and parallels to Warren’s ouster just one county over.

Almost immediately after the decision, Warren vowed not to prosecute abortions in Hillsborough, signing on to a pledge along with 82 other prosecutors across the nation.

“When I became State Attorney, I put my hand on a Bible, and I swore to God that I would defend the U.S. and Florida Constitutions, and I intend to do so,” Warren said at the time. “This 15-week ban is an unconstitutional law. The Legislature is hoping courts ignore the Florida Constitution. But I’m upholding the law and protecting the fundamental rights of all Floridians.”

Miller echoed Warren’s sentiments, saying she would not prosecute anyone providing or seeking reproductive health care. She said she felt her interpretation was in line with the law, as Florida’s own 15-week abortion ban had not yet been upheld by the courts. However, she also said she would follow the law and will reconsider if the ban is upheld.

“I believe what has been passed by our Legislature, the 15-week ban, is unconstitutional,” she said in an interview this summer. “And so I believe my statement is consistent with following the law in this state.”

Bartlett, for his part, remained quiet in the immediate aftermath of the Supreme Court decision.

He told the Times he planned to follow the law. But he didn’t say how that would apply to abortions.

“I took an oath when I became state attorney to follow the law,” Bartlett said at the time. “I don’t make the laws. The Legislature makes laws.”