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Trayvon Martin Case: Attorney Choice Sparks Division

Florida State Attorney Angela Corey (center) has been assigned to lead the investigation into the shooting death of Florida teenager Trayvon Martin. (The Florida Times-Union)

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.

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Transcript

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon. In Sanford, Florida today, hundreds of people are expected at a rally called From Anger to Answers. The gathering is in honor of Trayvon Martin, an unarmed black teenager who was shot to death in Sanford late last month. The admitted shooter is a neighborhood watch volunteer named George Zimmerman, who is a white Latino. Mr. Zimmerman told police he was defending himself. Others charge racial profiling. State Attorney Angela Corey is heading the investigation into the case. And as NPR's Cheryl Corley reports, the prosecutor's tough-on-crime reputation comforts some people, but concerns others.

CHERYL CORLEY, BYLINE: Just after Angela Corey took over the Trayvon Martin investigation, she made the media rounds. On public radio WJCT's talk show, she was asked if she'd press ahead with charges against George Zimmerman or wait for a grand jury to be convened next month.

ANGELA COREY: Our process on every case is that we utilize a grand jury for indictment in investigations if we need them. We may or may not need it and we'll know that in a couple of weeks.

CORLEY: Corey granted other interviews, suggesting again that she may not wait for a grand jury to act. With protesters across the country calling for Zimmerman to be arrested, Corey's every comment was analyzed. This week, she declared that she's done talking for now. But Floridians who have worked or watched Corey still have plenty to say. Beverly McClain runs Families of Slain Children in Jacksonville, Florida.

BEVERLY MCCLAIN: We had over 50 crosses out here when we first started.

CORLEY: In the yard next to the group's tiny headquarters, there are stone benches, and instead of crosses now there are three memorials listing the names of hundreds of murder victims.

MCCLAIN: My son, Andre Johnson, is up here.

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

MCCLAIN: Different families have to go down in that court system and she comes in the courtroom and sits with you, hug you. That lady care, and I don't believe it's phony. I know it's real.

CORLEY: Corey, a native of Jacksonville, Florida, is an experienced homicide investigator who's worked as a prosecutor for 30 years, and she has a reputation for being tough.

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

CORLEY: That's University of North Florida criminologist Michael Hallett who says his research shows Corey has been much more aggressive about filing charges than her predecessor. And that's what 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.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Brothers and sisters, it's because of you a new special prosecutor has been appointed.

CORLEY: At a recent rally in Sanford, the crowd applauded Angela Corey's appointment, but activists with the Southern Christian Leadership Conference oppose it. Jacksonville SCLC President, Reverend R.L. Gundy, says he considers Angela Corey a friend - they went to high school together.

REVEREND R.L. GUNDY: You can be a friend and disagree.

CORLEY: Gundy says Corey's tough-on-crime persona is built in part on charging minors, especially young black men, as adults. That's one reason why he doesn't think she's the right prosecutor for the case, even if she's investigating whether charges should be filed against George Zimmerman.

GUNDY: If she has this guy arrested, she'll become a hero. But when it comes to the young people that I'm seeing being herded through that juvenile justice system down there, it just does not make sense.

CORLEY: Corey argues that her office's handling of juvenile cases has nothing to do with the Martin shooting, where the use of deadly force is at issue. And during her radio appearance, Corey also angrily dismissed any perception that race plays a role in prosecutions her office undertakes.

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

CORLEY: Florida Governor Rick Scott defended Corey on Friday and Corey says what she also needs is patience from a public that's been demanding action. Cheryl Corley, NPR News, Sanford, Florida. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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