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For black lawyer in Michael Drejka case, career and identity clash

Theresa Jean-Pierre Coy volunteered to represent the white man accused of shooting an unarmed black man. That didn’t sit well with some.
Michael Drejka talks with his attorney Theresa Jean-Pierre Coy during his August trial in the shooting death of Markeis McGlockton. Jean-Pierre Coy drew criticism for volunteering to help defend a white man accused in the shooting an unarmed black man. [SCOTT KEELER | TIMES | Tampa Bay Times]
Published Sep. 26
Updated Sep. 26

Theresa Jean-Pierre Coy was itching for a trial.

The Tampa lawyer was coming off a chaotic couple years. In January 2017, she gave birth to a son nearly two months early, then, 11 months later, doctors diagnosed her with breast cancer.

Finally, she was returning to work — just as the case of Clearwater parking lot shooter Michael Drejka was unspooling. Jean-Pierre Coy saw a chance to get back in the courtroom and help smooth out a case bogged down by controversy. She volunteered to help.

It seemed a simple enough request, except that Jean-Pierre Coy is black and her new client was a white man accused of shooting an unarmed black man, Markeis McGlockton.

Race hardly came up during Drejka’s trial and conviction last month. But outside the courtroom, it seemed to dominate the community conversation — a disconnect that raises questions about whether the criminal justice system accounts for potential bias.

The decision by Jean-Pierre Coy to join the case, and some of the tactics used by her defense team, were unsettling to some.

FULL COVERAGE: Everything you need to know about the Clearwater parking lot shooting

"They kept calling Markeis a weapon,” said Michele Rayner-Goolsby, the lawyer for McGlockton’s parents, soon after jurors found Drejka guilty. “Markeis is a human ... His blackness, his skin, does not make him a weapon, and we kept seeing these tropes being weaved in throughout the defense.

“It was shameful to see,” she said, “especially to have a black woman on there doing that."

The day after the trial, at a post-conviction rally, another black civil rights attorney seemed to join the criticism.

“Shame on them for trying to assassinate the character of Markeis after they assassinated his person,” said Benjamin Crump, who represents McGlockton’s girlfriend and families of slain, unarmed black men nationwide. “We got used to seeing others do that, but for those in our community to do that — shame on you."

The next morning, Jean-Pierre Coy took to Facebook to defend her work for Drejka, calling it an attempt to make the criminal justice system more fair and expressing “disbelief that fellow members of the Florida Bar ... have attacked my character, integrity and professionalism or have sat idly by while allowing others to do so.”

Rayner-Goolsby and Crump declined to comment for this story.

The tension between career and identity is inherent for black professionals, some experts say. It can be particularly fraught for those working within the criminal justice system.

“Are we going to consciously use our professional skills to fight racial injustice?” said Judith Scully, a black Stetson College of Law professor and coordinator of the college’s social justice advocacy program. “Or are we going to simply keep our heads down and focus solely on upholding the principles of our profession?”

Both choices come with consequences, Scully said, and it’s ultimately up to each professional to decide which approach to take.

“It’s not as simple as who’s right or who’s wrong, or who’s the better human being,” she said.

Family and friends of Markeis McGlockton, shot and killed during a July 2018 parking lot altercation, gathered for a rally at the shooting scene. [LUIS SANTANA | Tampa Bay Times]

When she joined the Drejka case, Jean-Pierre Coy, who had worked five years as a public defender and entered private practice in 2010, understood the optics.

She knew it might appear she was brought on to quell any suspicion Drejka was racist. But as two of Drejka’s lawyers became mired in personal scandal, she wanted to help give him a clean trial. She joined the case pro bono.

“I just personally feel … that you represent people not for who they are or what they've done, but you represent them to make sure that the government is doing their job,” she said. “It’s really a big picture thing.”

No evidence of racial motivation emerged after the July 2018 shooting, but race took center stage after Pinellas County Sheriff Bob Gualtieri declined the next day to arrest Drejka because of Florida’s stand your ground law.

The law comes with its own racial baggage, mostly notably from the 2012 shooting of black teenager Trayvon Martin. His shooter, white Hispanic neighborhood watch volunteer George Zimmerman, wasn’t arrested at first either because of stand your ground and was later acquitted of murder, sparking creation of the Black Lives Matter movement.

With Drejka remaining free, Black Lives Matter and the NAACP organized vigils and protests in the Tampa Bay area. Lawmakers called for a federal civil rights investigation. The Rev. Al Sharpton, from the pulpit of a Clearwater church, called for Gualtieri to arrest Drejka or give up his badge.

Jean-Pierre Coy agreed with the protesters, sympathizing with the outrage that someone can die and the killer walk free and how inconsistently the state-sanctioned immunity is applied.

But after prosecutors charged Drejka three weeks later, she struggled to understand why the outrage persisted and why the case continued drawing comparisons to the shooting of Trayvon Martin.

Zimmerman had engaged in apparent racial profiling. Jean-Pierre Coy saw the McGlockton shooting as an arguable self-defense case, in part because of a widely viewed video showing McGlockton got physical first.

After a trial largely absent of discussion around race, Drejka was convicted by a jury of five men and one woman, none of them black. His sentencing is scheduled Oct. 10.

“At the end of the day, we held him to a standard of what we want society to be,” said Tampa attorney Grady Irvin Jr., who is black and a mentor Jean-Pierre Coy consulted before joining the Drejka case. “We want society to be colorblind, but it’s not.”

Both sides steered away from race, and the defense tried to establish what some observers saw as the criminalization of the victim.

Several hours of expert testimony were devoted to the presence of MDMA, or ecstasy, in McGlockton’s system. One expert said the drug makes users more aggressive. In opening statements, Drejka attorney Bryant Camareno of Tampa called McGlockton a weapon.

“Although race is not explicitly mentioned there, in many people’s minds, when you think about his body, it’s not a neutral colorless, colorblind body,” said Scully, the Stetson professor. “Talking about black men’s bodies in our racial history and in contemporary society is this notion of fear.”

In other words, bias isn’t always explicit, and a growing body of research backs that up. But the criminal justice system has largely failed to account for this kind of prejudice, known as implicit bias, Scully said.

With self-defense, where a defendant’s perception of events figures prominently, implicit bias is particularly troubling, she said.

“It’s for this generation of lawyers to figure out: How do we attempt to remove the biases of the criminal legal system in order to ensure more fairness in the process?” Scully said.

Irvin had his own ideas on how the defense might have accounted for race in the Drejka case. He would have argued Drejka grew up in a biased society that taught him to fear black men and, therefore, his fear of McGlockton was reasonable.

Irvin has used such a defense before, but with a black client. Deonte Baker faced federal drug charges in the death of a white woman whose body Baker helped leave in an alley.

At Irvin’s suggestion, Baker took the stand. When asked why he didn’t call 911, Baker said it wouldn’t look good for a group of African-American men to be with a dead white woman.

“I was afraid of the way it would look with the police coming over,” he said, according to the court transcript.

He was acquitted, a rarity in federal criminal court.

“You have to talk about the way society is because people understand that,” Irvin said. “Is Drejka a racist? I don’t know. That’s not what the issue is. The issue is was he fearful of that particular person? And I hate to say it, but that was a big black guy. I’m not saying it’s right, but his fear was his fear.”

Jean-Pierre Coy said she is intrigued by this strategy and understands how bias can play a role in criminal cases. Maybe shining a light on bias can move the system forward, she said.

But for now, her way of fighting for justice is to work within the facts of a case and the system that exists. That means effective, zealous representation for all defendants.

She pointed to what she sees as reversals from the norm in approaches to the Drejka case: civil rights advocates who usually rail against the system rooting for it and a prosecution that jails people for assault treating McGlockton’s shoving Drejka as a reasonable move to defend his family.

The same prosecution might some day come after her critics or their loved ones, she said. If so, she’ll be there, keeping the system honest.

“If we’ve got a problem with the law, let’s fight about the law,” she said. “But if this is the law that’s in place right now, I’m going to make sure the government proves their case, plain and simple.”

Contact Kathryn Varn at (727) 893-8913 or kvarn@tampabay.com. Follow @kathrynvarn.

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