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Prosecutor at center of Trayvon Martin case known as tough, hard-nosed

Published Mar. 30, 2012

JACKSONVILLE — The prosecutor at the center of the national firestorm over whether the man who killed Trayvon Martin should be charged in his death said she's not likely to need a grand jury to make the decision for her.

More probable, she said, is that she'll be the one to decide.

"I always lean toward moving forward without needing the grand jury in a case like this," Angela Corey, the state attorney assigned to the case by Gov. Rick Scott, told the Times/Herald in an interview this week. "I foresee us being able to make a decision and move on it on our own."

Corey has built a reputation over the past three years as state attorney for Duval, Nassau and Clay counties as a hard-nosed, tough-minded and strong-willed prosecutor, and a move to decide on her own whether or not to charge George Zimmerman appears to be right in character.

In Florida, the decision on whether to indict someone in capital cases must be made by a grand jury. In all lesser cases, the decision to file charges is routinely made by prosecutors. But in highly controversial or difficult cases, prosecutors often defer to a grand jury, leaving the politically charged decision to a panel of citizens.

Thousands of people nationwide have rallied in recent weeks, demanding that Zimmerman, who says he was acting in self defense when he shot Martin in the Central Florida town of Sanford on Feb. 26, be arrested and charged.

Norm Wolfinger, the state attorney for Seminole County who had the case before the governor moved it to Corey, had originally announced plans to convene a grand jury on April 10.

If Corey sticks to her plan to move forward without a grand jury, whatever she decides will be criticized or praised by millions of Americans fixated on the case, her decision dissected in newspapers, TV newscasts and all over the Internet.

Corey came onto the case as the national media beamed an increasingly critical spotlight on Florida's law enforcers. As the criticism mounted, she entered as a fresh face with a clean slate.

As state attorney for the Jacksonville area since 2009, Corey has built a reputation as a hard-line prosecutor with a string of courtroom victories. Her office is adorned with dozens of photos of murder victims, and she easily rattles off the names of their killers, boasting about the length of their sentences.

But some of her previous decisions have brought her harsh criticism.

Topping the list: Her move to try a 12-year-old boy as an adult in a murder case. Critics also point to the large number of black teenagers she has sent to adult prison as evidence that she might not be the best person to take on the racially charged Trayvon case.

Corey disagrees. "It's not about race, it's about wrong," she said, flanked by black community leaders who have supported her over the years. Since taking over the Trayvon case last week, Corey has given her other cases a lower priority and spent most of her time with a small team to dig into the details surrounding the teenager's death. The team took over the case after Wolfinger stepped aside to avoid "the appearance of a conflict of interest."

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Corey said her investigators are painstakingly examining all the evidence, from Zimmerman's gun to his clothes to witness statements to the autopsy on Martin's corpse. Once done, Corey said, she envisions her team will likely decide whether or not to bring charges, although she has not completely ruled out taking the case to a grand jury.

Martin's parents' lawyer, Benjamin Crump, said that the family is just looking for "simple justice" in the death of their 17-year-old son.

"They want George Zimmerman arrested," he said. "If the special prosecutor opts not to empanel a grand jury, the family would be very hopeful that an arrest would be imminent."

Corey, an early ally of Gov. Rick Scott, is up for re-election this year.

"We're going to be watching her very closely to see how she handles this case," Isaiah Rumlin, president of the Jacksonville NAACP, said before a rally of few hundred protesters near Corey's office Saturday. "We think that she's shown some poor judgment on some of the cases that have come before her."

Rumlin pointed to the ongoing trial of Cristian Fernandez, now 13, who faces charges of first-degree murder and sexual battery — and potentially life in prison if convicted.

Cristian was arrested last year after police said he slammed his 2-year-old brother into a bookshelf, killing him. Corey's decision made Cristian the youngest person in Jacksonville's history to be charged as an adult in a murder case.

Corey said she never intended for Cristian to spend the rest of his life in prison, but insisted that the limited juvenile justice system is not an appropriate venue for his rehabilitation.

Legal scholars, including former American Bar Association president and former Florida State University president Sandy D'Alemberte, and children's advocacy groups have publicly criticized the decision.

"The consensus is the handling of the Cristian Fernandez case has been atrocious," said former State Attorney Harry Shorstein, Corey's predecessor and former boss. Shorstein — who has had an ongoing public spat with Corey — said he fired her in 2006 for insubordination.

With the support of police and conservative voters, Corey went on to beat Shorstein's handpicked successor for state attorney in 2008. Her tough-on-crime reputation has grown during her three years in office, sparking mixed reactions from a district that includes rural conservatives and urban minorities.

Despite a drop off in crime and arrests in Jacksonville and across the nation, the prison population in Duval County has increased during her tenure, with juvenile incarceration rates spiking.

Corey declined to detail what her team has learned during its first few days shuffling between the Sanford crime scene and her Jacksonville office. She said her office has been in talks with the U.S. Department of Justice, which is also investigating. A clearer picture of the circumstances surrounding Martin's death, she said, will eventually emerge.

"When we're done with this, you'll know what we could do with what we had," she said, asking for patience from the public. "You'll have every answer you need."

Miami Herald staff writer Frances Robles contributed to this report.