A Florida prosecutor famous for winning death sentences in her Jacksonville-area district lost a high-profile primary election on Tuesday.
Melissa Nelson, a corporate lawyer and former prosecutor, defeated incumbent Angela Corey in Tuesday's Republican primary, 64 percent to 26 percent. There is no Democrat running for the position, so Nelson will almost surely become the next State's Attorney for the Fourth Judicial Circuit.
During her eight years as prosecutor, Corey won 24 death penalty cases, the most of any state's attorney in Florida and one of the highest rates in the country. In total, 66 percent of the people sentenced to death under Corey were African-American.
She gained a reputation for her zealous prosecutions and publicly feuded with the mother of a murder victim who wanted her daughter's killer to get life in prison. In one of Corey's most shocking cases, she charged 12-year-old Cristian Fernandez as an adult for allegedly killing his two-year-old brother. He eventually pled guilty to a lower juvenile charge. (Nelson was one of his lawyers.) In another controversial decision, Corey sought a 60-year sentence for Melissa Alexander, a woman who shot a gun in a wall near her husband who abused her. Alexander's conviction was thrown out on appeal.
Corey also faced the international media spotlight as the special prosecutor assigned to handle the prosecution of George Zimmerman, the man who shot and killed Trayvon Martin in 2012. After a jury found Zimmerman not guilty of second-degree murder, Corey was accused of overcharging him.
Nelson, her likely successor, is hardly a liberal: She's a pro-death penalty Republican who was endorsed by the National Rifle Association. But she was also supported by criminal justice reformers who hope she'll chart a new course.
"[Corey] was way too far out there for many people," said Reverend Reginald Gundy, a Jacksonville pastor who campaigned against the incumbent and her use of the death penalty. Even though Nelson has also vowed to be tough on crime, he said, "based on what I've heard her say, she's open to change, she's inclusive of everyone."
Corey's defeat is just one example of conservative prosecutors around the country facing tough challenges. The liberal business magnate George Soros has spent more than $3 million backing pro-reform candidates for local district attorney positions around the country, Politico reported yesterday, part of a growing recognition of the huge role that prosecutors play in shaping the criminal justice system. Soros' candidates included Kim Foxx, who defeated Chicago's top prosecutor earlier this year in part due to controversy over a police shooting.
While Nelson wasn't one of the beneficiaries, she'll be among a new crop of prosecutors around the country when she takes office next year. And her election is a sign that typically under-the-radar prosecutor elections are gaining more national attention.
Casey Tolan is a National News Reporter for Fusion based in New York City.