Will voters finally get a choice in Pinellas-Pasco prosecutor race?

New prosecutors are winning elections and driving criminal justice reforms across the country. A veteran prosecutor plans to run. Will anyone challenge him?
The top two officials in the Pinellas-Pasco State Attorney's Office, Chief Assistant State Attorney Bruce Bartlett, left, and State Attorney Bernie McCabe confer at a 2013 court hearing. McCabe died on Jan. 1 and Bartlett was later appointed state attorney. He intends to run for the office in 2022.
The top two officials in the Pinellas-Pasco State Attorney's Office, Chief Assistant State Attorney Bruce Bartlett, left, and State Attorney Bernie McCabe confer at a 2013 court hearing. McCabe died on Jan. 1 and Bartlett was later appointed state attorney. He intends to run for the office in 2022. [ KEELER, SCOTT | Tampa Tribune ]
Published April 2, 2021|Updated April 2, 2021

A prosecutor wields tremendous influence in Florida.

Their office decides who gets plea deals and who should be put to death; whether juveniles stand trial as adults and whether officers who use deadly force should be held accountable. State attorneys answer only to voters.

For 28 years in Pinellas and Pasco counties, that power was held by one man.

Then Bernie McCabe died Jan. 1 at the age of 73.

His passing opens the door to a new era at the Pinellas-Pasco State Attorney’s Office. The 2022 election could be the first chance in decades for voters to choose new leadership.

“There is an extraordinary opportunity there for something bigger, something more progressive at the next election cycle,” said Carrie Boyd, senior policy counsel with the Southern Poverty Law Center, which chairs the Florida Coalition of Criminal Justice Reform.

Related: Bernie McCabe, Pinellas-Pasco’s top prosecutor, dies at age 73

It’s already happened in Tampa Bay. Andrew Warren upset the incumbent Hillsborough prosecutor in 2016 and ushered in change. Candidates like Warren who consider themselves progressive are winning in cities like Philadelphia and St. Louis and driving criminal justice policy in ways other politicians cannot.

That’s if voters get a choice. So far the only candidate is McCabe’s longtime second-in-command, current State Attorney Bruce Bartlett.

The next era may seem a lot like the old era, if Bartlett has his way.

“One of the things that’s made this office so effective is the lack of change,” he said.

Former Pinellas-Pasco state attorney Bernie McCabe seen during the 2012 trial of a teen accused of killing a St. Petersburg police officer.
Former Pinellas-Pasco state attorney Bernie McCabe seen during the 2012 trial of a teen accused of killing a St. Petersburg police officer.

A growing movement

Some see this as a moment to seize.

Two recent movements, Black Lives Matter and the push to end mass incarceration sparked by tough-on-crime policies of the 1980s and 1990s, “have really brought to light some questions about the efficacy of our criminal justice system,” said Sarah Wolking, a University of Florida Levin College of Law professor and former prosecutor.

Fair and Just Prosecution, a nonprofit dedicated to supporting reform-minded prosecutors, formed shortly after the 2016 election with about 20 elected prosecutors. Executive director Miriam Krinsky, a former federal prosecutor, said the network now has about 70 nationwide.

“What’s remarkable is they’re in red states and blue states, urban and rural areas, New York and California at the coasts, and everywhere in between,” Krinsky said.

And they are pushing for change.

In Pennsylvania, for example, Philadelphia District Attorney Larry Krasner has released a list of 29 police officers his office will refuse to call as witnesses because of histories of dishonesty or unreliability.

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Several prosecutors have started or expanded arrest diversion programs, which channel a defendant into community service or treatment, or opted not to prosecute low-level offenses.

Related: Aramis Ayala: the Florida state attorney who refuses to pursue the death penalty

An increasing number have said they would use the death penalty sparingly if at all, including former Orange-Osceola State Attorney Aramis Ayala, who was elected in 2016.

She announced in 2017 that she would not seek a death sentence in any case. Too many languish on death row for years, she said, hurting victims and taxpayers who foot the bill.

Across the bay, Warren launched a conviction review unit to investigate claims of innocence in cases prosecuted by his own office. The unit exonerated Robert DuBoise, who spent 37 years in prison for murder and once faced a death sentence. It also vacated 18 convictions that relied on uncorroborated testimony from three Tampa police officers who were later fired for misconduct, including failing to document detentions and searches.

Related: An exonerated man adjusts to life in Tampa after 37 years away
Robert Duboise, left, shakes hands with Hillsborough State Attorney Andrew Warren at the end of a Sept. 14, 2000 news conference following a hearing to exonerate Duboise after he was released from prison, where he served 37 years for a crime he did not commit.
Robert Duboise, left, shakes hands with Hillsborough State Attorney Andrew Warren at the end of a Sept. 14, 2000 news conference following a hearing to exonerate Duboise after he was released from prison, where he served 37 years for a crime he did not commit. [ MARTHA ASENCIO RHINE | Times ]

Some progressive prosecutors and their policies face resistance from critics who say they’re circumventing their oaths to uphold the law. Ayala was heavily criticized and then-Gov. Rick Scott stripped her office of 24 capital cases, saying her decision made it “abundantly clear that she will not fight for justice.”

She decided not to seek reelection. The first Black elected state attorney in Florida served one term and left office in January.

Her successor, Monique Worrell, also a Black woman, was the most progressive candidate on the Democratic ticket.

“While we cannot ignore the historical implications of the death penalty, it is the law,” her spokesperson said in a statement to the Tampa Bay Times. Worrell will follow the law, the statement said, and approach the decision to seek the death penalty with “the gravity that it deserves.”

A ‘zealous advocate’

Jimmy Russell became Pinellas-Pasco state attorney in 1969 and retired after 23 years. Two prosecutors vied for his seat in 1992. He backed McCabe, who won.

That was the last time McCabe faced a challenger. He ran unopposed in the next seven elections, ran the office for 28 years and died days shy of his eighth term.

Known for his sharp legal mind and compassion, McCabe was a mentor to hundreds of young lawyers, including Florida House Speaker Chris Sprowls. He was a “zealous advocate” for victims, Sprowls has said — particularly for slain police officers and their families.

Related: Florida House Speaker: Rename Pinellas courthouse after Bernie McCabe

McCabe fought for funding to create a veterans’ treatment court and, after initially hesitating, supported establishing a drug treatment court.

“This is not an office that has ever remained stagnant,” Sprowls told the Times about McCabe’s legacy, “unless you’d consider high levels of excellence stagnant, and I don’t.”But few of the circuit’s legal reforms originated from the State Attorney’s Office.

Pinellas’ biggest criminal justice reform in recent years was spearheaded by Sheriff Bob Gualtieri. He established the adult pre-arrest diversion program in 2016 to channel adults accused of low-level crimes into treatment and volunteer services.

McCabe supported the program and also backed Gualtieri’s Safe Harbor homeless shelter and diversion program, and pretrial release programs that offered alternatives to jail.

Last year, amid the protests, law enforcement drove new changes in policing policy in Pinellas. The county’s police agencies adopted body-cameras, expanded units that handle mental health calls and announced plans to allow social workers to handle some 911 calls.

Related: What did and did not change in Tampa Bay after the 2020 protests
Cody Krukauskas, 24, of St. Petersburg, left, and Fay Hoskins, 28, of St. Petersburg, participate in a June 10, 2020 protest march from St. Petersburg City Hall through downtown.
Cody Krukauskas, 24, of St. Petersburg, left, and Fay Hoskins, 28, of St. Petersburg, participate in a June 10, 2020 protest march from St. Petersburg City Hall through downtown. [ DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times ]

Gualtieri said he couldn’t think of an idea the former state attorney had championed. Nor could Bartlett, aside from the veterans’ court and a juvenile diversion program early in McCabe’s tenure.

Yet for three decades, no one challenged McCabe.

“Nobody probably thought they could win,” said attorney Clementine Conde, president of the Pasco chapter of the Florida Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers. “Or people who worked for him had loyalty to him and didn’t want to challenge him until he was ready to retire.”

‘It made me look stupid’

Ask defense attorneys what bothers them the most about dealing with the office and they’ll bring up the email policy. McCabe wouldn’t allow most prosecutors to have external email addresses. Defense attorneys had to call or send letters. That slows down the court system, they said, delaying outcomes for defendants and victims alike.

Attorney Carmen Miller, a former Hillsborough public defender, said she grew so frustrated dealing with Pinellas-Pasco prosecutors that she stopped taking on new criminal clients there.

“All I can say (to clients) is, ‘Hey, I’m trying to work with the state attorney,’” she said. “And it made me look stupid.”

Bartlett said that McCabe worried his prosecutors would say something inappropriate for the workplace.

“His line was, ‘Nothing good comes out of email,’” Bartlett said. “That was his choice.”

The State Attorney’s Office also does not speak directly to the public the way law enforcement or municipal governments do. It has no social media presence, although Bartlett said he was looking into creating a Facebook page. The office’s leaders rarely make public appearances.

At a 2018 public appearance, McCabe said something that made Miller question whether the office was scrutinizing itself. Speaking on a juvenile justice panel, the prosecutor said he had “no idea” of the racial make-up of the children he’d charged as adults, which, in Florida, prosecutors can unilaterally do depending on the age and charges.

“I suppose I could be stereotypical and look at the name and say that sounds like an African American … but we don’t do that,” he said, according to an article in The Weekly Challenger.

Florida Department of Juvenile Justice data shows that in both the Pinellas-Pasco circuit and statewide Black youth made up more than half of juveniles transferred to adult court over the last five years. It does not specify which cases were filed directly by prosecutors.

“If we’re living in a community that does not take into account those kinds of things, we’re living in a community that is silent and just ignores human beings,” Miller said. “That needs to be accounted for.”

‘It’s meant to build a fortress’

The racial disparities of the criminal justice system — and the killings of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor by officers — were at the heart of last year’s nationwide protests against police violence and racial injustice, including in Tampa Bay.

When protesters started to face arrest, demonstrators called on state attorneys on both sides of the bay to take action. Both McCabe and Warren dropped dozens of lower-level charges against demonstrators who said they were exercising First Amendment rights.

Related: DeSantis' protest bill questioned by Tampa Bay’s top cops, not just ‘far left’

But McCabe’s office also opted not to charge a white man who shoved someone to the ground and pulled a gun during a September clash in St. Petersburg between Black Lives Matter protesters and counter-protesters.

A Times investigation found that St. Petersburg police investigators relied on thin evidence — blurry images and the man’s inconsistent version of the night — to accuse two Black men of carrying knives. McCabe’s office used that evidence to decide the armed man acted in self-defense.

”He was justified in pulling the gun,” prosecutor Kendall Davidson told the Times in January.

The protester who was shoved wanted the state to bring an assault charge, but Davidson said she was “pretty hostile” in interviews and dropped the case.

“It made me feel like they weren’t looking at me like a victim, but like a criminal,” the protester told the Times.

Related: A white man pulled a gun at a Florida protest. Black men took the blame.
Two Black protesters flee after a man pointed a gun during a Sept. 26, 2020 protest in downtown St. Petersburg.
Two Black protesters flee after a man pointed a gun during a Sept. 26, 2020 protest in downtown St. Petersburg. [ Megan Fernandez and Johnny Bardine ]

The attorneys who represented the protesters in that incident said the case was emblematic of how McCabe’s prosecutors treated victims. They said the agency’s lack of email keeps the public from finding out what prosecutors actually say and think.

“It’s meant to build a fortress where they then can decide what accountability looks like,” attorney Megan Fernandez said. “And that accountability they decide on oftentimes does not line up to what the truth of a given case is.”

Bartlett denied that, saying the email policy had nothing to do with hiding information and decision-making about cases.

In Pasco County, activists questioned the office’s lack of interest in the Sheriff’s Office’s predictive policing program. A 2020 Times investigation found it directed deputies to target and harass residents and children based on their potential to commit crimes.

Related: Targeted, a Tampa Bay Times investigation

When the Times reported that story, neither McCabe nor Bartlett returned numerous calls and emails from journalists who wanted to ask about their knowledge and opinion of the program.

Bartlett discussed the program in Feburary when he spoke to a Times reporter after Gov. Ron DeSantis appointed him state attorney. The prosecutor said his office had no indication “other than what I read in the newspaper” that the program violated anyone’s rights.

“I have a lot of confidence in Sheriff Nocco, and I’m sure that what he’s doing is the right thing,” Bartlett said. “I didn’t feel I needed to stick my nose in business that wasn’t my concern.”

‘You have to have some sanctions’

Local attorneys and advocates told the Times there are several changes they want to see implemented in Pinellas and Pasco.

Among them: a mental health treatment court, an expansion of drug court, a DUI diversion program, a conviction integrity unit, updating the office’s technology, sharing more data about the criminal justice system with the public and giving more consideration to factors such as race and mental health when assessing how and whether to prosecute.

State attorney’s races are partisan, and Bartlett said he will run as a Republican.

Sprowls is term-limited in his Florida House seat in 2022. He said he doesn’t plan to run for the job and is throwing his full support behind Bartlett.

Florida House Speaker Chris Sprowls
Florida House Speaker Chris Sprowls [ Florida House ]

Like his predecessor, Bartlett has spent his career at the State Attorney’s Office. He started as an intern in 1978 and became an assistant prosecutor the next year. When McCabe was first elected in 1992, Bartlett became his chief assistant. Save for a brief retirement in 2014, he has served in that role until he was appointed state attorney on Jan. 21.

Bartlett has handled high-profile cases and led the prosecution teams that convicted some of Tampa Bay’s most notorious criminals. That includes Oba Chandler in the 1989 murders of a visiting Ohio family, Joan Rogers and daughters Michelle and Christe.

The prosecutor said Chandler was one of the worst killers he had ever dealt with. That’s why Bartlett decided to personally witness Chandler’s execution in 2011.

Bartlett was also on the prosecution teams that sent the killers of a Pasco sheriff’s lieutenant, a St. Petersburg police officer and a Tarpon Springs police officer to prison.

Bartlett said he does plan to give email addresses to all his prosecutors, which he said he considers a major reform. He also wants to start a DUI diversion program for first-time offenders.Bartlett

His main focus is preparing for life after the coronavirus. The pandemic ground parts of the legal system to a halt in 2020, creating a backlog of cases.

“Capacity is going to be pushed to the limit,” he said. “We’ll get through it. It’s just going to take a lot of attention on the part of employees.”

He doesn’t support policies favored by many new prosecutors across the country. He’ll continue to pursue the death penalty as he deems it appropriate.

“If you have any respect for the oath …” Bartlett said, “you follow what you say you’ll do, which is follow the law of the state of Florida.”

Pinellas-Pasco State Attorney Bruce Bartlett.
Pinellas-Pasco State Attorney Bruce Bartlett. [ Pinellas-Pasco State Attorney's Office ]

He said his office won’t keep or release a list of unreliable or untruthful cops, saying agencies can weed out bad officers and bring it to his attention.

He doesn’t see the point in a conviction integrity unit but said he’ll investigate new information raised in past cases.

Bartlett said he sees himself as “tough on crime” but says he has compassion for those grappling with addiction or mental illness. He’s a believer in arrest diversion and rehabilitation programs — to an extent.

His job is “making sure the people ... are provided a safe environment in which to live,” he said, “and there are people who break the law, and if they’ve had to run through the system on more than one occasion, you can’t be nice to them.

“You have to have some sanctions that are imposed.”

Bartlett noted that change requires the buy-in of other criminal justice leaders. That’s another benefit of consistent leadership, he said.

“This is like driving a battleship … You can’t just turn right or turn left,” he said. “It’s a movement of the entire system you have to make. I don’t think it’d be great to have someone with no relationships, connections, coming in and trying to do this.”

‘A lifetime position’

No one has challenged Bartlett in the GOP primary, and no progressive candidate — or “George Soros types,” Bartlett called them, referring to the wealthy Democratic donor’s political committees — has filed to run in the Democratic one.

There’s no rush to file. Candidates have until April 2022 to qualify. But the stakes are high, said Wolking, the law professor.

“Prosecutors have the most power of all the actors in our criminal legal system,” she said. “I don’t think it can be understated how important prosecutorial elections are.”

Bartlett, 66, is known in legal circles but is not well-known publicly and has never run for office. A Republican candidate may have the advantage. Pinellas barely went blue in 2020. Pasco is solidly red.

And in Tampa Bay, incumbency has long been used to give hand-picked successors an electoral boost. The sheriffs of Hillsborough, Pinellas and Pasco were all high-ranking officials within the agencies appointed to finish their predecessors’ terms. Each won as incumbent sheriffs and continue to win — the Pasco sheriff hasn’t faced an opponent in his last two races.

Related: Pasco Sheriff Chris Nocco has a controversial approach — and powerful friends who don't question it

Tampa defense attorney Bryant Camareno, a former federal prosecutor, wondered if the 2022 Pinellas-Pasco prosecutor’s race could see a repeat of Warren’s shocking upset in the 2016 Hillsborough race.

Few then thought Warren had a real shot, he said. And while Bartlett will run as the incumbent, he won’t have the same decades-old name recognition that may have kept McCabe safe from challengers.

“It all comes down to who is going to run against him,” Camareno said.

Pinellas and Pasco voters should finally get a choice, said Barbara Scott, former chair of the Pinellas County Democratic Party.

“You get elected and it becomes almost like a lifetime position because no one steps up to run,” she said. A competitive race would “bring dialogue and issues to light.

“I don’t think any elected official, whether you’re a Democrat or a Republican, should assume ‘Okay, I have this job for life.’ "