By Amy Wimmer Schwarb
JACKSONVILLE, Florida (Reuters) - Angela Corey, the prosecutor investigating the shooting death of an unarmed black teenager in Florida, has been known to wear a victims advocate pin to trials, shed tears with victims' families and make faces at defense witnesses.
The decision about whether to charge the white Hispanic man who shot and killed 17-year-old Trayvon Martin, will ultimately rest with Corey. Those watching the case, which has inflamed racial tensions, are looking closely at her background for clues to how she might handle it.
Corey heads a state attorney's office in north Florida where she has earned a reputation for toughness in handling crimes involving gun violence.
"Generally, it's arrest the guy with the gun and sort it out later. That's always been the way it works in Angela Corey's circuit," said Teresa Sopp, a veteran criminal defense lawyer who has battled Corey in court on numerous occasions.
Sometimes Corey's quest for justice can go too far, said Bill White, a former public defender who recalls judges instructing her to refrain from showing her frustration with defense witnesses or from wearing a large cross around her neck that might influence a jury.
"It's part of her zealousness," said White, who tried cases against Corey for more than 20 years. "Sometimes, you have to question that zealousness. And you have to keep an eye on her because you know you're up against a tough prosecutor. She's very, very smart."
The Trayvon Martin case - which has attracted attention across the United States and abroad - is putting Corey under close scrutiny.
Martin's family and supporters have attended rallies around the country to push for the arrest of the shooter, George Zimmerman, a 28-year-old neighborhood watch captain who said he acted in self-defense when he shot the teenager in the central Florida town of Sanford on February 26.
Police have so far not arrested Zimmerman, citing Florida's controversial "Stand Your Ground" law, which allows the use of lethal force outside the home when a reasonable threat is perceived.
In an interview on Tuesday, Corey would not discuss the specifics of the Trayvon Martin case, but said she does not shy away from making tough decisions.
"You can't worry about consequence if you're doing the right thing," Corey told Reuters. "If you're going to commit to doing the right thing for the right reasons, consequences have to fall where they may."
Florida Governor Rick Scott appointed Corey as the special prosecutor in the Martin case on March 22 after State Attorney Norm Wolfinger, whose district includes Sanford, recused himself.
The relationship between Corey and Scott dates to his campaign days, when Corey became one of the first state attorneys to support his election for governor. She later worked on Scott's transition team.
Corey, a native of Jacksonville, is the grandchild of Syrian immigrants who ran a grocery store downtown. She attended public schools in Jacksonville and still attends her childhood church, St. John's Episcopal. She studied law at the University of Florida.
In 1981 she joined the state attorney's office that oversees three north Florida counties, but was fired in 2006 after a falling out with her boss, then-State Attorney Harry Shorstein. Two years later, she ran against Shorstein's handpicked successor to lead the office and won.
Corey's tough stance has had an impact in her three years in office.
Despite a decrease in crime and arrests in Jacksonville, and in the overall jail populations around the state, the number of inmates in Jacksonville's Duval County jail is up dramatically due to tougher sentences, said one criminal justice expert who studied the statistics.
"The single most important factor as to why the jail is so full in Duval County is ... Angela Corey's aggressive style as prosecutor," said Michael Hallett, chairman of criminology and criminal justice at the University of North Florida in Jacksonville.
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Until she was picked to investigate the Trayvon Martin shooting, the case that attracted most attention to Corey involved another teenager.
Cristian Fernandez, now 13, was charged on Corey's watch with first-degree murder last June at age 12 for the death of his 2-year-old brother. He will be tried as an adult and faces a possible life sentence if convicted. Children's advocates have protested the decision.
"Compared to her predecessor, she is much more aggressive in terms of filing criminal charges, much less likely to dismiss charges, and more likely to multiple file... She prosecutes every potential charge to the hilt," Hallett said.
But even her critics insist that no one should misinterpret her position on cases as being racially motivated.
"She's been a strong advocate for African-American victims throughout her career," said former public defender White. "There's no hint of racism there. The real question with Angela, to me, is: Is her judgment good?"
Corey said for every case in which she has been criticized for being too tough, she can point to others that show a different side. In a recent case, two black teens were arrested as robbery suspects, Corey said, but she and another prosecutor quickly decided they would not file charges against the young men.
It was late on a Friday afternoon, and Corey did not want to see the suspects languish in jail all weekend. She tracked down a judge who was still at the courthouse and arranged the paperwork for them to be released to their grandmother, she said.
"She has a lot of compassion for the victims of crime, but she knows when a case is not going to be able to be prosecuted," said Mitchell Stone, a Jacksonville criminal defense lawyer who has known Corey for 23 years.
(Additional reporting by Barbara Liston and David Adams; Editing by David Adams and Frances Kerry)