In the crowded race for the next Orlando State Attorney, justice reform advocate Monique Worrell stepped out this week delivering a speech at an anti-racism, anti-police brutality protest at which she declared the injustice they oppose is built into the system.
“The system is not broken,” Worrell said as she addressed a protest demonstration at Orlando City Hall Tuesday. “It is functioning exactly how it was designed.”
Worrell entered the race for the seat opening up for the State Attorney in Florida’s 9th Judicial Circuit in late March, seeking the lane as a criminal justice reform advocate. However, the other three Democrats already in the race have also been trying to make criminal justice reports cornerstones of their platforms.
During the protest rally, however, Worrell, the former chief legal officer for the national criminal justice reform organization the REFORM Alliance, made it clear she’s going to fight for that lane in an election that will undoubtedly be won by one of the Democrats.
She derided her three Democratic primary opponents, though not by name, as talking but not walking reform commitment.
She also chastised them for not being presences at the protests underway in Orlando, as in most cities, since the slaying of an unarmed black man, George Floyd, last week sparked a nationwide movement seeking to reconcile racism, police brutality, and justice in America.
But her opponents JC 9 Chief Assistant State Attorney Deborah Barra, former JC 9 Assistant State Attorney, now an Assistant State Attorney in neighboring Florida’s 5th Judicial Circuit, Ryan Williams, and retired JC 9 Chief Judge Belvin Perry, all hit back on Friday. They each contended that Worrell has no practical experience in prosecution, and each said they see no discernible track record for criminal justice reform.
The quartet of Democrats will meet in the August 18 primary, with just independent opponent, lawyer Jose Torroella, awaiting the winner in November. JC 9 serves Orange and Osceola counties. Current State Attorney Aramis Ayala, Barra’s boss and Worrell’s and Williams’ former boss, decided not to seek reelection after a controversial first term.
Worrell’s Democratic primary opponents all also denounced the police slaying of Floyd and the systemic racism behind it, and each said they have long been committed to addressing it in the system. Barra contended that in Worrell’s year in the State Attorney’s office, as director of the conviction integrity, she never got a single case exonerated.
“She talks a big game, but there’s absolutely no actions to back up what she is saying,” said Barra, while noting that she has fully prosecuted three police officers for wrongful actions, sending one to prison.
Williams chided that Worrell seemed to spend less than a year with REFORM Alliance.
“I would push back on Ms. Worrell on what she’s actually done in criminal justice reform, because I’ve heard her talk about it recently, but I’m unaware of any actual work that she did on the subject prior to joining the nonprofit in 2019,” Williams said.
Perry pointed out that he grew up in the South in the segregation era and has worked for Civil Rights and reform all his life.
“She says she’s a reformer. A reformer of what? What has she reformed? She is a self-described reformer. I have actually done that particular work,” Perry said.
But Worrell struck hard Tuesday, taking a spotlight role in front of hundreds of angry protesters longing to hear someone pledge the kinds of criminal justice reforms they seek. And she delivered a passionate exclamation that she was one of them, drawing loud applause. That protest was peaceful for many hours but turned violent at the end, late Tuesday night.
“If you want to change the system, you must change the players. I am an African American woman. I have African American brothers. I have an African American father. I am married to an African American man. With me today is one of my three African American sons. And every single day, I know that one of them can be the next hashtag,” Worrell said.
She also insisted, contrary to her opponents’ charges: “I have been fighting for criminal justice reform in this community for 20 years. I’m an outsider to the system. I worked in the State Attorney’s Office, reviewing cases of wrongful convictions. What I learned during that time spoke to me and showed me that if, in fact, we want to make change, we must make it from within.”
Worrell also cautioned them that if they want to vote for change, “Don’t just look for the familiar name, because the familiar name is playing a familiar game.”
That presumably was a reference to Perry. While Barra and Williams are well-known in Central Florida legal and political circles, Perry has celebrity status in the broader community. He was the judge in numerous high-profile cases, including the infamous Casey Anthony trial of 2011. After he retired as a judge, he became an on-air legal consultant for an Orlando TV station, and he joined the highest-profile law firm in town, Morgan & Morgan, appearing in some of that firm’s almost ubiquitous advertising.
Her insinuation rattled Perry. He responded by detailing a long history of working within the system on a variety of legal and community reform matters, adding that he has always lived “in the ‘hood.” He shot back that Worrell could not succeed without having records that inspired trust in the broader community, and the justice community.
“In order for anyone to be a reformer, you have to have that trust and a track record. I am trusted in this community. I’m also trusted by law enforcement,” Perry said.