By Amy Wimmer Schwarb
JACKSONVILLE, Florida (Reuters) - Angela Corey, the prosecutor handpicked to investigate the shooting death of an unarmed black teen in Florida, has been known to wear a victims advocate pin to trials, shed tears with victims' families and shake her head at a defense witness whose testimony does not match her version of the facts.
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 flamed racial tensions, peer into her background for clues of how she might handle it.
The picture that emerges reveals a 57-year-old career prosecutor who heads a north Florida state attorney office where she is passionate and driven in her pursuit of justice for victims' families and her support for law enforcement.
Sometimes her quest can go too far, said Bill White, a former elected public defender who recalls judges instructing Corey to refrain from making faces at defense witnesses or 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."
How that fervor might play out in Sanford, the central Florida town where the shooting took place on February 26, is being closely followed across the United States and abroad.
Martin's family and supporters who have attended rallies around the country are pushing for the arrest of the shooter, George Zimmerman, a 28-year-old neighborhood watch captain who said he acted in self-defense.
Police refused to arrest 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 with Reuters, Corey said she focuses only on the facts of a case and not the deep-rooted opinions of observers on both sides. The prosecutor would not discuss the specifics of the Trayvon Martin case.
"You can't worry about consequence if you're doing the right thing," Corey said. "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 Scott and Corey dates to his campaign days, when Corey became one of the first state attorneys to support his election for governor. She later served on Scott's transition team.
Corey, a native of Jacksonville, is the grandchild of Syrian immigrants who operated a mom-and-pop grocery store downtown. She attended public schools in Jacksonville and still attends her childhood church, St. John's Episcopal.
She intended to study oceanography at Florida State University, but those plans changed when a business law professor urged her to consider law school. Corey went on to study 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 fervor during her three years in office has made a big impact. Despite a decrease in crime and arrests in Jacksonville, and reductions in jail populations around the state, the population in Jacksonville's Duval County jail is up dramatically due to tougher sentences, said Michael Hallett, chairman of criminology and criminal justice at the University of North Florida in Jacksonville. Hallett undertook a study to find out why.
"The single most important factor as to why the jail is so full in Duval County is prosecutorial style -- Angela Corey's aggressive style as prosecutor," Hallett said.
The most tumultuous case during her tenure involves Cristian Fernandez, now 13, who on Corey's watch was charged with first-degree murder at age 12 for the death of his 2-year-old brother. 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.
Said Teresa Sopp, a veteran criminal defense lawyer who has battled Corey in court on numerous occasions: "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."
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 teens languish in jail all weekend. She tracked down a judge who was still at the courthouse and arranged the paperwork that allowed the young men to be released to their grandmother, she said.
"She's very tough. She definitely wants to see justice done," said Mitchell Stone, a Jacksonville criminal defense lawyer who has known Corey for 23 years. "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.
"She wants to do the right thing."
(Additional reporting by Barbara Liston and David Adams; Editing by Colleen Jenkins and David Adams; Desking by Lisa Shumaker)