In recent months, Americans have demonstrated the effectiveness of petitions, protest, and public outcry in getting the attention of district attorneys who drag their feet (or fully avoid) charging powerful people with crimes against the more vulnerable.
Leon County residents appear to have taken notice.
Six years after Florida State University law professor Dan Markel was murdered in his home by hitmen who investigators say were hired by family members of his ex-wife, Wendi Adelson, his friends initiated a petition urging State Attorney Jack Campbell to bring charges against more of those responsible. The three accomplices that were hired to carry out the killing have already been arrested, but the family members who hired them remain free.
In less than a day, more than 600 Leon County residents (and others from around the state and globe) have added their names to the petition, and the campaign to circulate the petition is just beginning.
This case raises so many questions — legal and political alike:
— Is it a coincidence that the three arrested parties are all poor people of color, while the Adelsons are wealthy, white, and politically connected?
— How can the state use a common set of facts to make a case against two hitmen — and win! — without even trying to make a case against the people who hired them?
— Should prosecutors avoid charging suspects unless guaranteed a conviction at jury?
To the latter question, voters say, “no.”
In multiple surveys, voters say they feel justice is served when a suspect has his or her day in court, whatever the outcome is. And, when voting for state attorneys, people care a whole lot more about the candidate’s willingness to fight tough but important battles than they do about win-loss ratios.
In other words, a perceived misuse of prosecutorial discretion is far more damaging to a state attorney’s reelection than is taking a stand but losing.
State attorneys are elected, not appointed, for a reason — to maintain that in some measure, their choices reflect ours.
In between elections, though — the only recourse for victims and communities that perceive injustice in their prosecutor’s choices is to draw it into the public sphere.
If Palm Beach voters had petitioned for Jeffrey Epstein’s arrest, would it have still taken 10 years to get there? Would he have still been let off the hook if people made clear they were watching?
Who knows …?
But in 2020, we know that petitions such as this have worked elsewhere. Perhaps, now, in Tallahassee, too.