Sara Mollo thought she was done.
Soon after she was appointed as a prosecutor in Missouri, she started working on a death penalty case. She remembers watching the mother of a teenage defendant, learning that the state would seek death against her son, pass out in shock. The experience took a lot out of the young lawyer.
So she left, moving to the Florida Keys to think about her next steps — and learn to scuba dive. On her drive from Marathon to John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park, she’d pass a Monroe County Public Defender’s satellite office. As she struggled with her experience on the other side of the legal system, the frequent drive-bys gave her an idea.
“I thought being a public defender would be a really good opportunity just to make sure that the process worked fair, and that everybody did get justice,” Mollo said in a recent interview.
Beginning today, Mollo, 51, will lead the Pinellas-Pasco Public Defender’s Office for a four-year term, following last week’s retirement of Bob Dillinger, who was first elected in 1996 and served five terms. After Mollo worked a few years at the Monroe County office, then in private practice, Dillinger hired her in 2003, where she rose to be his chief assistant. With her boss’ support, she ran for his seat unopposed.
Mollo will be one of two new leaders in the Pinellas-Pasco legal system. Following the unexpected death last week of State Attorney Bernie McCabe, his chief assistant, Bruce Bartlett, is taking over the job. McCabe served one term longer than Dillinger, making this a rare moment for two offices previously led for decades by incumbents.
For Mollo, much of her first year in office will be focused on keeping it running amid the coronavirus pandemic, she said. The virus has forced many court proceedings online, so Mollo said she wants to make sure the office stays up to date with technology.
She also anticipates that, as the pandemic pushes up unemployment and poverty rates, fewer people will be able to afford a private lawyer, so her office will likely take on more clients. That’s on top of the case backlog that has built up as the pandemic continues to stall some criminal trials. Mollo is also bracing for budget constraints for her own office.
“There’s going to be some additional challenges right up front,” she said.
Beyond that, she wants to continue her boss’s legacy, which is a big task on its own, she said. Dillinger expanded his office’s role to include social programs and outreach that go beyond the traditional public defender role of providing legal representation to those who can’t afford private lawyers.
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Mollo shares Dillinger’s passion for mental health, which bloomed while she was working on Baker Act cases. The Baker Act is a Florida law that allows for the involuntary examination of those experiencing a mental health crisis. And working in the office she saw how much issues such as mental illness, substance abuse and homelessness played into her clients’ cases.
“What I noticed, and what Mr. Dillinger allowed me to see was a tenacious and relentless caring for people, just unwilling to give up on them,” she said.
Of her new role, she said, “I’m not interested in the politics of it. I’m interested in the people of it, and that’s what I’m going to stay focused on.”
Mollo lives in Belleair Bluffs with her husband and daughter. Spot her at the courthouse by looking for red heels — her signature accessory.