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Voters Oust Public Defender, State Attorney In Historic Primary

Cyd Hoskinson
Trial lawyer Melissa Nelson took little time to celebrate as she accepted victory and talked of the work she intends to do.

In a monumental legal shakeup for the First Coast, the 4th Judicial Circuit will have a new state attorney and public defender.

Two-term State Attorney Angela Corey lost to challenger Melissa Nelson by close to 40 percentage points in Tuesday’s primary.

She was unable to surmount a number of controversies to hold on to her job, including recent negative profiles inThe Nation,New York Times Magazine and aHarvard University study calling Corey “overzealous” in her use of the death penalty and allegations she was behind the filing of a write-in candidate that shut Democrats out of voting in her GOP primary.

But just before the returns came in, she stood by her record and refused to apologize for the way she ran the office.

“Angela Corey hasn't changed from the woman she was when she won eight years ago and I won't change eight years from now. I will always do what I do best, which is care passionately about this community,” she said.

Corey said she’ll keep working in law enforcement, although she didn’t offer specifics.

In her victory speech, Melissa Nelson didn't waste time framing the challenge ahead of her.

“We will be aggressive in seeking innovative solutions to these serious problems. We will implement meaningful reform so we can all enjoy better outcomes and we will — I will — work hard to restore trust in the criminal justice system,” she said.

Nelson took 64 percent of the vote, Corey held on to 26 percent and Wes White got close to 10 percent.

Incumbent Public Defender Matt Shirk was also hit, albeit to a lesser extent, by the same negative national press that called his counsel ineffectual.

But Shirk doesn’t think that factored much into voters’ decisions to dump him. Instead, he said, ethical controversies were most likely the culprit.

He said voters punished him for moral mistakes he made when improperly using his office to hire women with whom he had extramarital affairs.

Still, he stands by his record of establishing a diversion court and cutting costs.

“We’re proud of the last seven years of returning over $2 million in unused tax dollars, and our work with veterans and starting veterans court, and our real focus on trying to improve the smart justice programs of this circuit,” he said.

But incoming Public Defender Charles Cofer took issue with that characterization. He thinks Shirk gave away money he should have used to effectively defend people.

“The problem with it is that he was returning due-process money back to the state, which was necessary, absolutely necessary, to do the job properly. While he was doing that, he was misleading the courts about not having enough money,” Cofer said.

As he said many times over the course of the campaign, he said Shirk isn’t being completely forthright.

Cofer handily won with 2/3 of the vote. 

Listen to this story on Redux:

Reporter Ryan Benk can be reached at, 904-358-6319 or on Twitter @RyanMichaelBenk

Ryan Benk is a former WJCT News reporter who joined the station in 2015 after working as a news researcher and reporter for NPR affiliate WFSU in Tallahassee.