JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – The three candidates for top prosecutor of Duval, Clay and Nassau counties squared off Tuesday night at Jacksonville University, making their case to be state attorney for the 4th Judicial Circuit.
Angela Corey is being challenged by Melissa Nelson and Wesley White -- both former prosecutors on her staff. All three took questions from News4Jax political reporter Kent Justice.\Among the topics were use of the death penalty, transparency and politics in the prosecutor's office, including Corey's campaign using a specific provision in the election law that allows a write-in candidate to keep this race closed to only Republican voters.
"The Supreme Court declared it legal, and I think it's disrespectful to call it a dirty political trick," Corey said. "I don't get to vote in Democratic primaries, and I don't complain about that."
"The question is not whether it's legal, it's whether it's right," Nelson said.
"I believe the state attorney's race should be a nonpartisan race, and I commit to you that, God-willing, should I be elected, I will change my party affiliation to NPA -- no party affiliation -- so that everyone will always be allowed to vote," White said.
WATCH: Entire state attorney debate
Candidates also discussed a commercial released by the PAC for Corey that attacked Nelson, featuring a 2003 murder case against William Wells, who Nelson prosecuted for killing five people in Mayport. While in prison, Wells killed another inmate.
"I have never seen a case like that where the death penalty was waived knowing that a man that said, 'If you don't put me on death row I will kill again,' was put in general population and not only stabbed someone and almost killed them, but actually did kill again," Corey said.
"(It's) not surprising that Ms. Corey and her attack ad failed to let the voters know, that she was my supervisor when I handled that case," Nelson said. "That attack ad, which she leads the viewers to believe that I let somebody off the hook, she also fails to tell you that because of my efforts, William Wells will never walk this earth again among you all. He was sentenced to five consecutive life sentences because of the work I did, and she applauded."
"We've just seen a case where Ms. Nelson refuses to own what she did. She refuses to admit her responsibility. And even worse than that, she showed what I believe is moral bankruptcy, saying that it didn't matter, this guy didn't walk amongst you, he walked amongst prisoners," White said.
The George Zimmerman case was also discussed, with Corey being asked if she would handle things differently, knowing what she knows now.
"We don’t overcharge by filing second degree murder. We’re required to file the highest charge we believe we can prove. Someone even said, 'Well, why did you come in at the last minute and file manslaughter?' And we said, 'Well, manslaughter’s a necessarily lesser included,'" Corey said. "We don’t believe there should be that much publicity on any given case. We’ve tried hundreds of cases with similar fact patterns, we’ve gotten guilty verdicts, we’ve gotten hung juries, we’ve gotten not guilty verdicts. The question is, why was that case so high profile?"
Nelson said, "It is ironic to hear tonight that Ms. Corey is distraught with the publicity surrounding that case when after that case she held a press conference and said the reason that they’ve charged George Zimmerman was for the public. It is the obligation of a prosecutor never to bring a case unless the evidence supports a reasonable probability of conviction. To abdicate your duties for public consumption is offensive, but the problem was the behavior after the jury verdict."
"Well the first thing I would have done is I would have taken it to a grand jury. I believe in the grand jury system. I believe that too many times we skip it. I believe that the people have a right to know what’s going on, they have a right to determine that probable cause exists to bring an indictment, and I think we need to listen to them," White said. "And I also think that we fail to engage in the dialogue that we needed to do with regard to the Zimmerman case."
News4Jax political reporter Kent Justice asked if White thought he owed Nelson an apology after a special prosecutor looking into allegations of election misconduct in race said Monday that the accusations from White against Nelson have no merit.
In a letter to White, 8th Judicial Circuit State Attorney Bill Cervone said he found “no violation of the election code by the Nelson campaign,” and would not be presenting the allegations to a grand jury.
"I do not. I mentioned just a moment ago how there are factions in our community, in the legal community, and in the wealth-driven community, that believe they need to control elections," White said. "Now, the fact of the matter is, Mr. Cervone said that’s not a violation of law and it’s not a violation of law. But what it is, it’s politics, the dirtiest kind of politics that I have ever seen in my life, and it simply should not be tolerated and I guarantee that they won’t do it again."
Nelson said, "Does Wes White owe me an apology? The answer to that is yes. His allegations were categorically false, and they were found as such without any merit at all by Bill Cervone."
"I wasn’t there when these two were cozying up together and plotting against me, so I don’t know what they said in their little email fest with each other, and I don’t know what was said in that room," Corey said.
JU's Public Policy Institute hosted this debate, along with one Wednesday night with the candidates for the 4th Congressional District and Thursday for the 5th Congressional District.
- Wednesday - 4th Congressional District of Florida – televised live
- Thursday - 5th Congressional District of Florida – televised live
All debates take place from 8-9 p.m. in JU's Swisher Theater, and Wedneady and Thursday's debates will air on Channel 4 as well as be streamied live on News4Jax.com. Click here for more information on JU’s Public Policy Institute.