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MIAMI • When special prosecutor Angela Corey met the parents of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin, one of the first things she did with them was pray.
"We did not promise them anything," the Jacksonville state attorney said at a news conference Wednesday. "In fact, we specifically talked about if criminal charges do not come out of this, what can we help you do to make sure your son's death is not in vain?"
It's that kind of sensitive approach with the relatives of crime victims and survivors that has marked Corey's career over the last three decades, those who know and have worked with the 57-year-old prosecutor said.
"She has been at the forefront of the victim's rights movement for her entire career," said A. Russell Smith, a defense attorney in Jacksonville and personal friend. "Some people criticize her for that, saying it costs her the detachment and perspective that she needs. But that's always been who she is and that is the platform she ran on."
On Wednesday, Corey announced in Florida second-degree murder charges against George Zimmerman in Martin's slaying. Zimmerman, 28, fatally shot the unarmed Florida teen on Feb. 26 as he was walking back from a convenience store in Sanford, Fla.
Zimmerman has claimed self-defense, but Martin's family, supporters and civil rights leaders nationwide pressed for an arrest. The case prompted protests across the country and triggered a debate about race and the laws of self-defense. Martin was black; Zimmerman's mother is Hispanic and his father is white.
Miles away in Washington, the teenager's father, Tracy Martin, and mother, Sybrina Fulton, cried, hugged and clasped hands when Corey made the announcement. They and Trayvon's brother, Jahvaris Fulton, were attending a national conference convened by civil rights activist Al Sharpton's National Action Network.
"We wanted an arrest and we got it," Fulton later said. "Thank you, Lord, thank you Jesus."
Before a roomful of journalists, and under the microscope of a nation closely watching her decision, Corey discussed the case with a mixture of confidence and empathy, calling Martin's parents "sweet" and vowing to uphold the law for their son and for Zimmerman.
"She's not only a very good lawyer, I think everybody today saw she's also a very good public figure," Smith said.
Corey is known for her tough tactics, locking up criminals for long sentences and not negotiating easily on plea bargains. When she ran for the State Attorney's Office in 2008, prosecuting juvenile criminals was one of her top priorities. She has a reputation for filing more charges, bringing more cases to trial and being less likely to use a grand jury than her predecessor. She's also handled hundreds of cases involving the justifiable use of force.
"This case is just like many of the shooting deaths we've had in our circuit," Corey said at the news conference. "If 'stand your ground' becomes an issue, we fight it if we believe it's the right thing to do."
Corey was referring to the law in Florida and at least 20 other states that gives wide latitude on using deadly force during a confrontation, and has been at the center of the Martin case.
Her predecessor, former State Attorney Harry Shorstein, fired her from the office she had worked in for 25 years in 2006. He has said the dismissal stemmed from an intern's complaint that she had been unprofessional and profane. Shorstein asked her to respond to a professor who brought forward the complaint, but he said she instead sent a letter criticizing the professor for communicating the complaint.
Corey has disputed the account. Two years later, she ran for the State Attorney's office and won. Simmons said advocating for victim's rights was a part of her appeal to voters; as a prosecutor, he said, she was always concerned and outspoken about victims and their families.
That's a side of the prosecutor Jay Howell, a Jacksonville attorney and former state prosecutor, knows well. His cousin was killed four years ago, and it was Corey's office that handled the case. He's also worked with her in other cases he has represented.
"It is a different experience when your family member has been murdered," Howell said. "It's just so confusing. It is just so disarming, for all of us, even experienced professionals in the criminal justice system, that a truly understanding, sympathetic, considerate voice is very welcomed by those whose lives have been upended by serious crime."
That is the message Corey seemed to try and communicate Wednesday evening when asked about race and justice in a case that brought to surface so much tension and turmoil.
"We only know one category as prosecutors, and that's a 'V,'" she said, making a V with her fingers. "It's not a 'B.' It's not a 'W.' It's not an 'H.' It's a 'V' for victim. That's who we work tirelessly for."