By Ian Tuttle
Angela Corey, by all accounts, is no Atticus Finch. She is “one hell of a trial lawyer,” says a Florida defense attorney who has known her for three decades — but the woman who has risen to national prominence as the “tough as nails” state attorney who prosecuted George Zimmerman is known for scorching the earth. And some of her prosecutorial conduct has been, well, troubling at best.
Corey, a Jacksonville native, took a degree in marketing from Florida State University before pursuing her J.D. at the University of Florida. She became a Florida prosecutor in 1981 and tried everything from homicides to juvenile cases in the ensuing 26 years. In 2008, Corey was elected state attorney for Florida’s Fourth Judicial Circuit, taking over from Harry Shorstein — the five-term state attorney who had fired her from his office a year earlier, citing “long-term issues” regarding her supervisory performance.
When Corey came in, she cleaned house. Corey fired half of the office’s investigators, two-fifths of its victim advocates, a quarter of its 35 paralegals, and 48 other support staff — more than one-fifth of the office. Then she sent a letter to Florida’s senators demanding that they oppose Shorstein’s pending nomination as a U.S. attorney. “I told them he should not hold a position of authority in his community again, because of his penchant for using the grand jury for personal vendettas,” she wrote.
Corey knows about personal vendettas. They seem to be her specialty. When Ron Littlepage, a journalist for the Florida Times-Union, wrote a column criticizing her handling of the Christian Fernandez case — in which Corey chose to prosecute a twelve-year-old boy for first-degree murder, who wound up locked in solitary confinement in an adult jail prior to his court date — she “fired off a two-page, single-spaced letter on official state-attorney letterhead hinting at lawsuits for libel.”
And that was moderate. When Corey was appointed to handle the Zimmerman case, Talbot “Sandy” D’Alemberte, a former president of both the American Bar Association and Florida State University, criticized the decision: “I cannot imagine a worse choice for a prosecutor to serve in the Sanford case. There is nothing in Angela Corey’s background that suits her for the task, and she cannot command the respect of people who care about justice.” Corey responded by making a public-records request of the university for all e-mails, text messages, and phone messages in which D’Alemberte had mentioned Fernandez. Like Littlepage, D’Alemberte had earlier criticized Corey’s handling of the Fernandez case.
Not many people are willing to cross Corey. A Florida attorney I spoke with declined to go on record because of “concerns about retaliation” — that attorney has pending cases that will require Corey’s cooperation. The attorney mentioned colleagues who have refused to speak to the media for the same reason. And to think: D’Alemberte crossed Corey twice. He should get a medal.
But what these instances point to is something much more alarming than Corey’s less-than-warm relations with her peers.
In June 2012, Alan Dershowitz, a well-known defense attorney who has been a professor at Harvard Law School for nearly half a century, criticized Corey for her affidavit in the Zimmerman case. Making use of a quirk of Florida law that gives prosecutors, for any case except first-degree murder, the option of filing an affidavit with the judge instead of going to a grand jury, Corey filed an affidavit that, according to Dershowitz, “willfully and deliberately omitted” crucial exculpatory evidence: namely, that Trayvon Martin was beating George Zimmerman bloody at the time of the fatal gunshot. So Corey avoided a grand jury, where her case likely would not have held water, and then withheld evidence in her affidavit to the judge. “It was a perjurious affidavit,” Dershowitz tells me, and that comes with serious consequences: “Submitting a false affidavit is grounds for disbarment.”
Shortly after Dershowitz’s criticisms, Harvard Law School’s dean’s office received a phone call. When the dean refused to pick up, Angela Corey spent a half hour demanding of an office-of-communications employee that Dershowitz be fired. According to Dershowitz, Corey threatened to sue Harvard, to try to get him disbarred, and also to sue him for slander and libel. Corey also told the communications employee that she had assigned a state investigator — an employee of the State of Florida, that is — to investigate Dershowitz. “That’s an abuse of office right there,” Dershowitz says.
What happened in the weeks and months that followed was instructive. Dershowitz says that he was flooded with correspondence from people telling him that this is Corey’s well-known M.O. He says numerous sources — lawyers who had sparred with Corey in the courtroom, lawyers who had worked with and for her, and even multiple judges — informed him that Corey has a history of vigorously attacking any and all who criticize her. But it’s worse than that: Correspondents told him that Corey has a history of overcharging and withholding evidence.
The Zimmerman trial is a clear case of the former and a probable case of the latter. Zimmerman was charged with second-degree murder, also known as “depraved mind” murder. The case law for that charge, an attorney who has worked in criminal prosecution outside Florida tells me, is near-unanimous: It almost never applies to one-on-one encounters. Second-degree murder is the madman who fires indiscriminately into a crowd or unlocks the lions’ cage at the zoo. “Nothing in the facts of this case approaches that.” Which Angela Corey, a veteran prosecutor, should have known, and a grand jury would have told her. In fact, both the initial police investigation and the original state attorney in charge of the case had determined exactly that: There was no evidence of any crime, much less second-degree murder.
But that did not stop Corey from zealously overcharging and — the facts suggest — withholding evidence to ensure that that charge stuck.
Still, by the end of the case it was clear that the jury was unlikely to convict Zimmerman of second-degree murder; hence the prosecution’s addition of a manslaughter charge — as well as its attempt to add a charge for third-degree murder by way of child abuse — after the trial had closed. “In 50 years of practice I’ve never seen anything like it,” says Dershowitz. It’s a permissible maneuver, but as a matter of professional ethics it’s a low blow.
Corey’s post-trial performance has been less than admirable as well. Asked in a prime-time interview with HLN how she would describe George Zimmerman, Corey responded, “Murderer.” Attorneys who spoke with me called her refusal to acknowledge the validity of the jury’s verdict everything from “disgusting” to “disgraceful.”
But will Corey ever be disciplined for prosecutorial abuses? It’s unlikely. State attorneys cannot be brought before the bar while they remain in office. Complaints can be filed against Corey, but they will be deferred until she is no longer state attorney. The governor can remove her from office, but otherwise her position — and her license — are safe.
Meanwhile, those who speak out against her continue to be mistreated. Ben Kruidbos (pronounced CRIED-boss), the IT director at Corey’s state-attorney office, was fired last week — one month after testifying during the Zimmerman trial that Corey had withheld from defense attorneys evidence obtained from Trayvon Martin’s cell phone. Corey’s office contends that Kruidbos was fired for poor job performance and for leaking personnel records. The termination notice delivered to Kruidbos last Friday read: “You have proven to be completely untrustworthy. Because of your deliberate, wilful and unscrupulous actions, you can never again be trusted to step foot in this office.” Less than two months before this letter, Kruidbos had received a raise for “meritorious performance.”
The records in question — Kruidbos maintains he had nothing to do with leaking them — revealed that Corey used $235,000 in taxpayer money to upgrade her pension and that of her co-prosecutor in the Zimmerman case, Bernie de la Rionda. The upgrade was legal, but Harry Shorstein, Corey’s predecessor, had said previously that using taxpayer funds to upgrade pensions was not “proper.”
Meanwhile, while Kruidbos has been forced out of the state attorney’s office, the managing director who wrote his termination letter — one Cheryl Peek — remains. In 1990 Peek was fired from the same state attorney’s office by Harry Shorstein’s predecessor, Ed Austin, for jury manipulation. Now, as managing director for that office, she trains lawyers in professional ethics.
Since her election, Corey seems to be determinedly purging from the ranks any who cross her and surrounding herself with inferiors whose ethical scruples appear to mirror her own. Meanwhile, those she chooses to victimize — most recently, George Zimmerman — far too often have little recourse.
“Make crime pay,” Will Rogers once quipped: “Become a lawyer.” Angela Corey seems to be less interested in making crime pay than in making her critics pay.