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R.J. Larizza, State Attorney Candidate: The Live Interview

| August 5, 2012

r.j. larizza state attorney 7th judicial circuit elections 2012

R.J. Larizza. (© FlaglerLive)

R.J. Larizza, a one-term incumbent elected four years ago when he defeated John tanner, is running against Stasia Warren–a Volusia County Court judge for over 20 years–in the Aug. 14 primary election for State Attorney for the 7th Judicial Circuit. That’s also the general election for this race: the winner will be the state attorney regardless, because only two candidates of the same party are running in the race.

Links to Each Live Interview
R.J. Larizza
Stasia Warren
The Overview

Therefore, all registered voters in Flagler County as well as St. Johns, Putnam, and Volusia are eligible to cast a ballot in this case–whether Democratic, Republican, Independent or from a minor party. You may cast a vote regardless of the district, the town or the subdivision you live in. There will be no run-off in this race, no general election: this one is it. It so happens that both candidates are Republican.

The 7th Judicial District is one of 20 districts in Florida. The 7th covers Flagler, St. Johns, Volusia and Putnam. The state attorney is the top cop in the district. The state attorney is the chief prosecuting officer in all criminal courts in the district, representing the state and building criminal cases against defendants, deciding the severity of the charge, dropping charges when evidence is deemed insufficient, and initiating investigations, including grand jury investigations. (See a full list of responsibilities.)

FlaglerLive submitted 15 identical questions to Larizza and Warren, who replied in writing, with the understanding that some follow-up questions may be asked, and that all exchanges would be on the record. Follow-up questions, when necessary, appear in italics, and may be awaiting answers.

The Questions in Summary: Quick Links

R.J. Larizza: The Basics:

Place and Date of Birth: Born in Jacksonville.
Current job: State Attorney for the 7th Judicial Circuit for the past four years.
Website: larizza2012.com

1.  Why do you want to be (or remain) State Attorney for the 7th Circuit? What qualifies you to be in this position? What is the most important quality in the State Attorney for the 7th Circuit?

I want to continue to improve upon the successes we have achieved during my first term. We have established the highest conviction rate in the history of the 7th Circuit State Attorneys Office. We have established a career criminal/special prosecution unit that targets the worst offenders who account for much of the criminal activity in our Circuit. These offenders are subject to enhanced sentences and lengthy prison terms. We are poised to start a paperless office initiative which will increase efficiency and effectiveness while reducing costs. We are pursuing new ideas for prevention programs to be implemented circuit-wide. During my second term I plan to develop and refine the above initiatives and accomplishments. I also plan to find a way to provide salary increases to our staff.

What is the most important quality in the State Attorney for the 7th Circuit?

Has not answered.

 

2. What will be your top three priorities for the office in the next four years?

Expanding the career criminal/special prosecution unit, instituting the paperless office initiative, continue to develop and refine communication with law enforcement and all the other agencies/institutions essential to the criminal justice system, and exercising fiscally sound and responsible judgment regarding the annual budget with a plan to provide salary increases to staff.

Assuming budget issues continue as they have been, how would you provide that salary increase?

Has not answered. 

 

3. What do you consider to be the most pressing problems facing law enforcement agencies in your jurisdiction? Please be specific, explaining why you are citing the issues you do.

Drug related crime, budget and resource allocation, jail overcrowding, and domestic violence issues.

Drug related crime poses unique challenges. No matter how many times buyers, sellers and distributors are arrested and charged – others step in to take their place. So long as there is a demand, law enforcement can only minimize – not eradicate – the problem. Budgets and resource allocation is more of a problem now as cities and counties find their revenues drying up. Law enforcement has to make tough choices regarding what gets cut. I have seen a reduction or – in some cases – elimination of law enforcement officers in our schools. This is just one example of how shrinking revenues may affect the staffing of law enforcement agencies. Jail overcrowding necessitates the need for either expanding an existing jail or building a new one. This can be prohibitively expensive. Two counties in the Circuit – Putnam and Flagler – have struggled with the jail issue. With little or no funds available in the county budgets – and little tolerance for tax hikes – there is little that can be done at this time. Domestic violence continues to plague our communities. The investigation and prosecution of these cases are challenging for several reasons. Sometimes Victims will either recant or be reluctant to cooperate based on the emotional and psychological impact of the abuse. There are rarely eyewitnesses to the event and oftentimes the parties do not want to be separated. Special techniques and training have been instituted to help address the unique challenges of domestic violence cases in the 7th Circuit. More specifically, we put on a circuit-wide training that includes law enforcement, prosecutors, DCF employees, domestic violence shelter staff, and other treatment providers to develop a holistic and effective approach to the problem.

4. Florida became the focus of national attention after the shooting death of Trevon Martin. Do you believe that had that incident occurred in your jurisdiction, you would have handled it differently, and if so, in what specific ways?

It would be inappropriate for me to comment on the Trevon Martin case for many reasons. Most notably, because it is an open case that is being prosecuted by the State Attorney from the 4th Judicial Circuit.

5. Assess, from your vantage point, the state of race relations between law enforcement and the public, and how you think minorities are treated, generally, by police in the 7th Judicial Circuit.

There will always be a certain degree of tension between Law Enforcement and the public. I believe that generally there is a good relationship between the officers and the people they serve. While there are times when racial issues manifest themselves through the actions of individual law enforcement officers or members of the public, I believe that to be the exception and not the norm. Officers that exercise their authority under the color or shadow of racism have no business carrying a badge. Progress has been made by way of diversity training and a zero tolerance for racism and racial stigmatization. I believe that there is always room for improvement in the relationship between law enforcement and the public. It would be naïve to say that racism does not exist, but I believe that we are much better off than we were five or ten years ago. We should all strive to continue to oppose racism at every opportunity.

6. Where do you stand on the Stand Your Ground law, and considering the legislative movement to rethink the law, would you support its repeal, or amending it?

I do not believe that the stand your ground law will be repealed and I do not support its repeal. I support slight modifications. First, the law should define more clearly what constitutes “unlawful activity” to remove any confusion resulting from the vagueness of the phrase. Second, the presumptions of “reasonable fear of imminent bodily harm” should be rebuttable instead of irrebuttable. That distinction would allow prosecutors to challenge the presumption at trial so a jury could decide whether or not the law applied to a specific factual scenario.

7. The shooting deaths of 12 an injury to 58 innocent moviegoers by a lone gunman in Colorado renewed discussions of the 2nd Amendment and federal gun laws. What is your position concerning the right of civilians to own high powered automatic weapons? Would you support the restoration of the ban on assault weapons?

Citizens in Florida are not typically allowed to own automatic weapons. I support the individual ownership of firearms and I do not support a ban on assault weapons.

8. The arrest and prosecution of Casey Anthony in the death of her infant daughter Caylee in Orange County Florida resulted in a finding of not guilty. How do you believe the media attention centered on the case may have impacted the outcome of that case?

The media coverage of the trial made it more difficult to try the case because there was always a danger that some or all of the jurors would see portions of the coverage. The coverage also created an almost circus-like environment that may have adversely affected the attorneys’ ability to present their respective cases to the jury.

Do we sense some distaste for the media–or some media–in coverage of such trials?

Has not answered. 

 

9. Assuming that the great majority of law enforcement conduct is honorable, there nevertheless are cases of police misconduct you have experienced, as a state attorney or as a judge. Please cite an example or two of such misconduct and how you dealt with it. And tell us how you intend to balance your close relationship with law enforcement agencies with the need to remain independent and objective the moment law enforcement officers act inappropriately.

The first example that comes to mind is the Beach Patrol cases involving Jeccoa Simmons and Robert “Bobby” Tameris. Once we received the complaints we formed a task force consisting of our Office and two other law enforcement agencies to outline strategy and operational security. We worked closely together to execute our investigation strategically and confidentially. Once the investigation was concluded – it took more than six months to complete – we arrested Simmons and Tameris. We treated the defendants fairly but they got no special considerations. The quality of our investigation was outstanding, and the facts left little room for criticism from other law enforcement officers. As with any investigation, the better the quality, the better the results. Simmons took his case to trial and we prevailed obtaining a conviction for solicitation to commit perjury – a third degree felony. Tameris, on the other hand, chose to plea to a prison term of 18 months. Another case that comes to mind involves a husband and wife who were officers of the Bunnell Police Department. Our Office spearheaded said investigation that probed towing and impoundment issues, theft and destruction of evidence, substance abuse, and official misconduct. These cases represent the commitment this administration to holding people accountable for their actions no matter what their occupation or position in the community. As far as balancing the relationship with law enforcement against prosecuting bad cops – I believe that most law enforcement Officers want corrupt cops prosecuted. The key is to be fair and to be right throughout the entire process.

You mention the Bunnell case, which of course got a lot of attention, and press, locally. But it seems to go against your point. Ex-cop John Murray faced six felony charges, including tampering with evidence (which could have tainted the cases of other defendants: we’ll never know), cocaine possession, illegal prescription drug possession, marijuana possession, theft and official misconduct. Lisa Murray, his wife, originally faced an official misconduct charge stemming from an abuse of her position with a local citizen (and on behalf of a then-city commissioner), a charge your office dropped, leaving a charge of theft. Lisa pleaded to deferred prosecution, John pleaded no contest to a single charge of marijuana possession, in exchange for having all the other charges dropped, and the case–which had unraveled systemic problems at the Bunnell PD–ended. How can that be an example of aggressive, zero-tolerance prosecution against misbehaving cops, as opposed to another couple of scores for what you mentioned in your opening answer: “the highest conviction rate” in the circuit’s history? How was justice, as opposed to that rate, served in these two cases?

Has not answered. 

 

10. National District Attorney’s Association states that prosecutors’ individual rate of conviction, or any prosecutor’s office’s rate of conviction, should not be considered in the charging or sentencing decision. Do you agree with this? Is this or should this be the policy of the State Attorney’s Office?

Charging decisions, plea offers and sentencing recommendations should be made based on the facts, the law and a totality of the circumstances involving the criminal episode. Individual or office conviction rates should not be a factor in those decisions as a matter of record and of policy.

Then why cite the highest conviction rate as a point of commendation in your opening answer?

Has not answered. 

 

11. What safeguards are in place or should there be to ensure innocent persons do not plea to crimes because of the threat of prison?

Defendants should be provided competent representation to advise them regarding the pros and cons of their case. The Judge should ensure that the defendant’s attorney has adequate time to evaluate and explore the charges through the deposition and investigative process. The defendant should be afforded ample opportunity to challenge alleged constitutional rights violations and seek appropriate remedies. The Judge should make sure that the defendant’s constitutional rights are protected throughout the process. These safeguards are more than adequate to ensure that the defendant has the information necessary to make an informed decision regarding whether or not to plea to the crime. The defendant knows if he or she committed the crime, and they are in the best position to make the call on whether or not to plea.

You unquestionably place the entire burden of ensuring against such pleas on the defense and the judge: does the prosecutor bear no responsibility to ensure against the misuse of pleas, at a time when somewhere near 90 percent of convictions are attained through pleas, and the cajoling, fear of prison and other intimidating factors that go with it, as opposed to giving the defendant his or her day in court?

Has not answered. 

12. How does (or should) the State Attorney’s office handle communications with law enforcement officers during the prosecution process?

Prosecutors communicate with law enforcement throughout the prosecution process. They communicate by phone, in person, email and Skype – to name a few. Communication is necessary to discuss (i) if additional investigative work is necessary, (ii) if a plea to the charges is appropriate, (iii) to prepare for a hearing or trial.

13. Is there a written policy manual for prosecutors to rely on when making sentencing and or charging decisions? If not, should there be?

There is a training manual regarding how to complete sentencing guideline scoresheets, which must be completed in all felony sentencings. There is also a career criminal/habitual offender manual which provides guidelines for the prosecutors on how to identify , charge, prosecute and seek sentencing enhancements for repeat and violent offenders. All cases are different and prosecutors must make decisions on a case by case basis. Prosecutors are trained on how to evaluate a case for charging and prosecution purposes. Peer review and case staffings with supervisors are utilized to monitor charging decisions and sentencing recommendations.

14. How does your office (or how do you propose to) handle specialized and complex criminal enterprises or cases (for example, multiparty white collar crime involving multiple victims or elder crimes) that cannot be handled by the regular trial attorneys? Is there a special unit set up to handle such cases, or do you support such a unit?

Our special prosecution unit is designed to, and currently handles, complex white collar crimes such as the Family Life Center scheme to defraud case that is set for trial in September. The Special Prosecution Unit also handles Racketeering (RICO) cases, and other complex criminal charges. My plan is to expand the unit when the budget permits.

15. What questions would you ask your opponent?

R.J. Larizza posed the following questions to Stasia Warren. They are reproduced here without interference or editing from FlaglerLive; the answers will be posted as soon as they are provided.

Why did you knowingly run false ads and continue to run them and use them in your campaign after you acknowledged that they were false and or misleading?

How many death penalty cases have you prosecuted? How many death penalty cases have you tried as a Judge? Are you Death Qualified? How many murder cases have you tried as a defense attorney?

16. Here are the questions Stasia Warren asked of R. J. Larizza. They are reproduced here without interference or editing from FlaglerLive; the answers will be posted as soon as they are provided.

a. Doesn’t it appear improper to the people who you represent that you handled the Murder case of Benjamin Lightsey? As you know, you and Glenn Lightsey are good friends dating back to your time as a prosecutor in St. Augustine. You even wrote a letter of commendation for Glenn Lightsey in 1998. This case began before you took office and the previous administration spoke to Lightsey’s attorney about a 40 year sentence if he testified against Glenn Lightsey. Isn’t it true that Benjamin Lightsey got only 25 years for beating his wife to death and throwing her body in the ocean?

Has not answered. 

b. Doesn’t is appear that cronyism exists in your office when you hire Ronald Griffin, a high school friend as an investigator and do not fire him even when an investigation revealed he used his state provided car for personal use? Isn’t it true that the investigator of the Ronald Griffin affair said in his report that other employees including attorneys and investigator were reluctant to report him because he often reminded them that you and he were best friends? Isn’t it true that you did not file criminal charges against him nor did you fire him? What do you think your handling of the Ronald Griffin affair, which included reassigning him from the St. Augustine office to your Bunnell office and then to your Daytona Beach office, says about your management abilities?

Has not answered. 

c. When you talk about your conviction rate, isn’t it true you do not tell people that your conviction rate only ranks 9th of the 20 state attorneys, you only had only 80 real jury trials out of 10,000 cases, your DUI conviction rate was only 65.58%, you had 4,163 probation revocation hearings when Jacksonville only had 957 and that you ranked 10th out of the 20 state attorneys in sending people to prison?

Has not answered. 

d. Doesn’t is appear that your Coastal PBA endorsement was bought and paid for because you created the Reserve Investigator program (at the state attorney’s office ) in June of 2011, you swore Vince Champion in as a Reserve Investigator in September 2011 and you paid Vince Scudiero at least $4,000 during this campaign when Champion is the President of the Coastal PBA union and Vince Scudiero is the Political Director of the union.

Has not answered. 

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