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Matt Shirk, Angela Corey in war of words regarding Duval Veterans Court

In a letter Tuesday, 4th Circuit Public Defender Matt Shirk took issue with State Attorney Angela Corey regarding the latter’s “defiant stance as it relates to referrals of veterans into the Duval County Veterans Court.”

This is, Shirk wrote, something of a historical controversy.

“In 2011, the Public Defender’s Office proposed the establishment of a Veterans Court. At that time you questioned the need for such a court and sarcastically suggested that we should also establish a ‘firefighter court’ and a ‘police officer court.’ Subsequently, at the urging of then-Chief Judge Donald Moran, our office took on the onerous task of surveying each person arrested as to his or her military status (which we have continued to do each day since). This self-report revealed that approximately 150 military veterans were being arrested each month, a statistic that continues to this day,” Shirk writes.

“Half of those veterans have seen actual combat and nearly all suffer from some level of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) or traumatic brain injuries (TBI),” Shirk writes. “Presented with this data, your then-Chief Assistant Dan McCarthy still questioned the need for Veterans Court and indicated that your office continued to oppose establishing a Veterans Court in our circuit. It was not until after Mr. McCarthy left your office that we learned he was simply following your direct orders that a Veterans Court NOT be established.”

Despite such opposition, Shirk adds, the Veterans Court was created anyway by Chief Judge Moran.

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“It is important to include this information because it highlights an atmosphere of contempt that your office has displayed for our very successful Veterans Court. It is also important to point out that your office’s position has almost always been to object, from your day one opposition to your repeated opposition in court to veterans entering the program. It is disingenuous of you to travel around our circuit and praise the success of our Veterans Court in a manner that suggests you supported or were involved in its creation,” Shirk writes. “From inception, your office has been an obstacle to scores and scores of wounded combat veterans getting the necessary treatment they deserve. They received these wounds while fighting to protect the very freedoms you and I are sworn to defend in court every day and deserve our respect, thanks, and help. Of the 111 participants and graduates of our Veterans Court, your office has agreed to only 19 veterans participating in the program.”

“My hope is that this letter will shed some light on the posture your office has taken on referrals of veterans into our Veterans Court and that you will establish an atmosphere of inclusion from this point forward … When we first began this journey nearly six years ago, we never dreamed we would face such fierce opposition from your office to such an unbelievably worthwhile program. I can think of no population more worthy of support from the criminal justice system than veterans wounded while serving our country who defended the freedoms of all Americans. I look forward to your office re-evaluating your position on Veterans Court.”

Shirk sent along a transcript of a court hearing, involving Howard Rentschler, an honorably discharged veteran who the SAO had resisted giving over to Veterans Court handling after he got a DUI with a .36 blood alcohol level, as an example of the intransigence of the State Attorney’s Office.

Rentschler served in the 82nd Airborne from 1992 to 1996. Injured in a parachute jump, he fell into alcoholism for decades after that.

Rentschler met all the statutory requirements to be deferred to Veterans Court, claimed the Public Defender’s office. The state, however, disagreed; and kept disagreeing, until the presiding judge threatened a contempt claim.

As she has before with these letters from the Public Defender, Corey disagreed.

She rejected Shirk’s claims, calling his letter a “diatribe” that was “ridiculous … unprofessional … rather infantile” and “absolutely not based in fact.”

Corey noted, in a conversation, that her management team has spent an “inordinate amount of time” attempting to improve the Veterans Court, including attempting to set up a meeting.

Corey also noted that staff from her office was trying to get the Nassau County Veterans Court up to speed, and that her team is “working on various aspects every day” of improving the Veterans Court process.

“It’s odd that he would write such a letter,” Corey said, adding that such “hand-delivered missives” are “counterproductive,” and that her office has worked with multiple veterans represented by private attorneys, with one even saying that the SAO saved his life.

“It’s unbecoming of an elected official to continue to perform in this manner,” Corey said.

Perception, not too long ago, was that Shirk and Corey had a solid working relationship. What has become clear, though, is that tensions are increasing between the public defender and the State Attorney. Also clear is that Corey is growing weary of Shirk communicating with her office through the media.

Written By

A.G. Gancarski has been a working journalist for over two decades. Gancarski has been a correspondent for FloridaPolitics.com since 2014. In 2018, he was a finalist for an Association of Alternative Newsweeklies "best political column." He can be reached at a.g.gancarski@gmail.com.

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