Trayvon Martin Case: Attorney Choice Sparks Division | WAMU 88.5 - American University Radio
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Trayvon Martin Case: Attorney Choice Sparks Division

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Activists are holding a rally in Sanford, Fla., on Saturday, in honor of Trayvon Martin, the unarmed black teen who was shot to death in Sanford in late February.

The admitted shooter is neighborhood watch volunteer George Zimmerman, a Latino. Zimmerman has been accused of racial profiling; he says he was defending himself.

Just as the case itself is polarizing, so too is the state attorney who has been appointed to head the investigation. Prosecutor Angela Corey's tough-on-crime reputation comforts some, but worries others.

Corey made the media rounds just after taking over the Trayvon investigation. Asked on WJCT FM in Jacksonville, Fla., if she plans to press ahead with charges against Zimmerman — or wait for a grand jury to be convened in April — Corey was noncommittal.

"Our process in every case is that we utilize a grand jury for indictment in investigations if we need them," Corey responded. "We may or may not need them, and we'll know that in a couple of weeks."

In other interviews, she again suggested that she may not wait for a grand jury to act. With protesters across the country calling for Zimmerman's arrest, Corey's every comment is being analyzed.

Corey declared this week that she's done talking for now. But Floridians who have worked with Corey, or watched her career, still have plenty to say.

Supporting Relatives In Court

Beverly McClain runs the organization Families of Slain Children in Jacksonville. In the yard next to the group's tiny headquarters, three memorials list the names of hundreds of murder victims. McClain's son, Andre Johnson, is one of them.

McClain says Corey is compassionate. She says she's watched Corey help relatives of murder victims get through trying legal proceedings.

"Different families have to go down into that court system," McClain says. "And she comes in the courtroom and sits with you, [hugs] you. That lady cares, and I don't believe it's phony. I know it's real."

Corey, a Jacksonville native, is an experienced homicide investigator. She's worked as a prosecutor for 30 years and has a reputation for being tough.

University of North Florida criminologist Michael Hallett says his research shows Corey has been much more aggressive about filing charges than her predecessor.

"If the facts of the case warrant the filing of a charge, she's going to file it," he says, "and she's tending to prosecute every individual potential charge to the hilt."

Not Right For The Job?

Her prosecution record bothers critics. They say that even as crime has dropped and jail populations have gone on the decline elsewhere, Corey has worked to keep the Jacksonville jail full.

The crowd applauded Corey's appointment to the Trayvon case at a recent rally in Sanford, but activists with the Southern Christian Leadership Conference oppose it.

Jacksonville SCLC president Rev. R.L. Gundy went to high school with Corey. He says he considers her a friend, but, he says, "you can be a friend and disagree."

Gundy says Corey's tough-on-crime reputation is built in part on charging minors — especially young black men — as adults.

That's one reason Gundy feels Corey isn't the right prosecutor for the case, even if she's investigating whether charges should be filed against Zimmerman.

"If she has this guy arrested, she'll become a hero," Gundy says. "But when it comes to the young people that I'm seeing being herded through that juvenile justice system ... and first-time offenders ... [getting] so many years, and things they are getting out of the system — it just does not make sense."

'We Focus On Our Victims'

Corey argues that her office's handling of juvenile cases has nothing to do with Trayvon's shooting, where the use of deadly force is at issue.

During her WJCT radio appearance, Corey also angrily dismissed any perception that race plays a role in prosecutions her office undertakes.

"I've stood over too many dead, young black children with tears in my eyes ... wondering why the senseless violence," Corey said. "We focus on our victims."

Florida Gov. Rick Scott defended Corey on Friday. Corey says what she needs is patience from a public that's been demanding action.

Copyright 2012 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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