TAMPA — When Theresa Jean-Pierre Coy joined the defense team that would tackle the high-profile case of a white man accused of shooting a Black man in an argument over a parking space, she was taken aback by the personal attacks that came her way.
Some called it shameful that Jean-Pierre Coy, a Black criminal defense attorney, could be part of such a case. For her, though, it wasn’t so much a matter of race, but of ensuring that the U.S. Constitution was upheld and justice prevailed.
“You represent people not for who they are and what they’ve done,” she told the Tampa Bay Times in 2019. “But you represent them to make sure that the government is doing their job.”
Jean-Pierre Coy, known as a fighter for the rights of the accused, died Monday after a recurrent bout with cancer. She was 41.
In a 17-year legal career, she rose to local prominence through her zealous advocacy for clients and her prolific community involvement. She served as president of the George Edgecomb Bar Association and on the Tampa Mayor’s African American Advisory Council, among many other boards and community groups. Widely seen as a rising star, she’d confided to friends her intention to run for political office.
“We’ve lost a giant,” said U.S. District Judge Mary Scriven.
A daughter of a Haitian-American family, Jean-Pierre Coy was born in Rochester, N.Y., but spent much of her childhood in Brooklyn. Growing up, she developed an interest in law by watching TV shows about the legal system. She told people she would be a lawyer, and wanted to practice “mergers and acquisitions,” she recalled in a 2019 interview with the Tampa Minority Enterprise Development Corp.
“I had no clue what that meant,” she said. “But it sounded really good and it impressed everybody.”
She moved to Florida when she was halfway through high school. She later attended Florida A&M University, where she double-majored in political science and public administration. She earned a law degree in 2004 at Stetson University College of Law. It was there that she met her husband, Travis Coy.
The couple would work opposite sides of the courtroom, he as a prosecutor for the Hillsborough State Attorney’s Office, she as a defense lawyer.
She began her career in the Pinellas-Pasco Public Defender’s Office. In 2010, she opened her own firm.
“She took on things that might not have been popular,” said fellow defense lawyer Grady Irvin, a friend and mentor. “But she believed in our Constitution and that everyone was entitled to the right of counsel, regardless of circumstances or their position in life.”
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She brought a personal perspective to her clients, having a brother who served time in prison. She told friends she fought for her clients the same way she fought for her brother.
Joseline Jean-Louis Hardrick, an associate professor at the Hillsborough campus of Western Michigan University’s Cooley Law School, recalled as a young lawyer seeing Jean-Pierre Coy as a friendly face amid the bustling Pinellas County courthouse. They became close friends.
“I think sometimes, as lawyers, we start out with these ideals and we get cynical very quickly,” Jean-Louis Hardrick said. “She never got burned out or cynical. She believed in the ideals of individuals needing representation.”
Jean-Pierre Coy had spoken openly about her health and hardships. She endured six miscarriages before she and her husband had a son, Thaddeus. Not long after giving birth, she was diagnosed with cancer. She underwent chemotherapy and radiation treatment at Moffitt Cancer Center.
Her struggles brought new meaning to a nickname: “Tenacious Theresa.”
When the Pinellas County case of Michael Drejka, the parking lot shooter, drew national headlines in 2018, Jean-Pierre Coy volunteered to join the defense team to help smooth over a case that had become enmeshed in controversy.
Defense lawyer Bryant Camareno, who shared an office building with Jean-Pierre Coy, said they agreed to bring her on for her legal expertise. Her participation brought criticism from those representing the family of the victim, Markeis McGlockton.
During trial, there were anonymous threats, Camareno recalled. Jean-Pierre Coy remained publicly unrattled. Her goal all along was to ensure fairness and due process.
“It was a legal challenge,” Camareno said. “She loved that challenge.”
In January, Jean-Pierre Coy joined the office of Hillsborough State Attorney Andrew Warren to lead the conviction review unit, which examines closed cases in which defendants claim to have been wrongfully convicted.
“Theresa’s joyful spirit, infectious laugh, passion for advocacy and courage throughout her battle with cancer inspired us all,” her family wrote in a statement posted to Facebook. “Theresa was also a beacon of light in this world that will never truly go out as long as each of us pick up her mantle and continue her work of transforming the lives of the downtrodden throughout our community.”