Prosecutors look to era of transparency, smart justice

Wesley LeBlanc and Eric Cravey
Posted 6/6/18

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Prosecutors look to era of transparency, smart justice

Posted

FLEMING ISLAND – The new head of the State Attorney’s Office in Clay County hopes to usher in a new level of transparency while also stepping up use of some of the ‘smart justice’ initiatives his boss, State Attorney Melissa Nelson, championed during the 2016 election cycle.

“We don’t have a one size fits all,” said Cyrus Zomorodian in a recent interview with Clay Today. “Look at all the mitigation in the case, all of the aggravation in the case. Look at everything and think about a case and make the appropriate offer.”

One of the smart justice initiatives on the minds of Fourth Circuit prosecutors involves drugs and how addiction plays into the criminal justice system. Years of the ‘war on drugs’ and rising addictions from such illicit drugs as heroin, fentanyl and methamphetamine paired with years of ‘tough on crime’ legislation have resulted in overcrowded state prisons and courtrooms around the country, aspects that place unprecedented strains on state and local budgets.

“My attorneys have to have a grasp on the entire case so that they can understand an offer, so they can tell a judge this is how and why we are proceeding in this manner or that,” Zomorodian said.

Having worked for the State Attorney’s Office for 17 years in Duval and Clay counties, Zomorodian was promoted to his new post in March after replacing the retiring Sean Daly who had been in the Clay office since 2010. Zomorodian’s job starts alongside the police officers who are called to the scene of a crime. The police make an arrest based on probable cause – the likelihood that there is evidence at the scene to prosecute a suspect.

Once an arrest is made, Zomorodian makes an independent assessment to determine if the suspect is guilty or not guilty.

“We ask, ‘Can we prove the case beyond reasonable doubt?’ because that’s the standard we are held to in a court of law,” Zomorodian said. “We are held to a higher burden [than civil law] because the defendant’s liberty is at stake.”

During the 2016 campaign, Nelson often pointed out how crimes should be treated as case-by-case events and re-counted the story of three children stealing bread from a grocery store.

“One steals because he was dared, one because he’s hungry, and one steals because he thinks it would be fun,” she said.

Smart justice allows prosecutors to step back and review each case and apply the proper sentencing based on the mitigating circumstances.

The same punishment for each child is not appropriate, she said, and explained that the “facts and circumstances drive a resolution that makes sense with public safety being the No. 1 goal.”

Helping guide Zomorodian implement smart justice is Nelson’s second in command, L.E. Hutton who also recently came on board. Like Zomorodian, Hutton said their No. 1 job is to protect the public. The issue of drugs, for example, is a primary concern in Clay County.

Hutton discussed some of the aspects of drugs and crime. A drug addict on the street might get arrested for robbing a convenience store to obtain more money to buy more drugs and further fuel their addiction. If Hutton or Zomorodian convict that addict as under the lens of violent crime and drug distribution, the question arises about whether justice is truly served.

“What can we do to help this addict break his addiction,” Hutton said. “If they just serve time, they might be back on the streets doing drugs again and more.”

So, now the question becomes how can attorneys who are tasked with prosecuting offenders do their jobs while balancing the requirements of the law?

“If we can help that person and stop their addiction, when they’re free again, they won’t be looking for drugs which might mean they won’t commit another crime,” Hutton said. “If that’s the case, we’ve done our job.”

Both men cite programs such as Drug Treatment Court and Veterans Treatment Court as successful interventions that further help them ‘step back’ and look at each offense with a different lens. The goal being not to overcharge a suspect, something Nelson’s predecessor, Angela Corey, was often criticized as doing. The veterans’ program also takes into account such issues as PTSD and pairs the defendant with a volunteer who also served in the military. The volunteer helps serve as an accountability partner and case manager while they go through the program.

“They may have committed some crime but if you are not treating the core problem, then long term, we really have not done anything to enhance the safety of the public,” Hutton said.

In both intervention programs, those who are arrested agree to submit to random and mandatory drug testing and go through different types of like-skill training that they are required to complete. In most cases, if the offender submits to all aspects of these intervention treatment programs and successfully completes them, the reward is a lesser sentence, if not the sentence being wiped away from their records altogether.

A Jacksonville native, Zomorodian grew graduated from American University in Washington, D.C. where he studied political science before getting a master’s degree in the same field from the University of Alabama. He then attended law school at Samford University in Alabama.

Zomorodian answers directly to L.E. Hutton, Nelson’s Chief Assistant State Attorney, who is charged with carrying out similar oversight in the Duval and Nassau county offices.

A University of Florida law graduate, after law school Hutton did a stint in the State Attorney’s Office before going into private practice for about 15 years before Nelson hired him for his current role.

In terms of prosecuting the drug dealer, Hutton and Zomorodian discuss a different tack they may take to execute justice. According to Hutton, a drug dealer might be convicted of a first-degree murder, for example, if he sells a drug laced with fentanyl, which usually results in death.

Naturally, Hutton and Zomorodian apply this much care, observance and attention to not only the cases they have at hand, and the defendant’s involved, but also the victims. They know the system can come off as hard to understand and confusing and, because of that, they work closely with the victim to ensure they understand each step taken. They always consult with the victim to verify how the victim feels about how the case is proceeding.

“It’s important that we involve them to the degree that they want to be involved,” Hutton said.

While still up for debate, many say that Florida crime rates are down and Hutton and Zomorodian agree.

“I do think overall that across the state of Florida, it’s true that crime has gone down, but then you have to ask yourself, ‘Why is that?’” Hutton said. “Hopefully, I can say that it’s because of the hard work that your law enforcement community is doing and that we’re doing at the State Attorney’s office.”

Despite numbers indicating that crime is down, Hutton and Zomorodian do their best to stay focused on the task at hand, rather than the numbers, because for them, there will always be an ebb and flow as some crimes might go down but maybe other crimes go up. Regardless of the numbers, Hutton and Zomorodian simply want one thing – families to feel safe.

“This all goes back to the idea that we are always doing our best to make the right decision that has the best public safety outcome,” Hutton said. “Every single day when we go to work, all that we have to do is the right thing.”

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Graham Osteen

Excellent interview....good work by Wesley and Eric.....I'm sure your Clay County readers appreciate such quality local journalism.....

Thursday, June 7