State Attorney Worrell accuses Gov. DeSantis of a “witch hunt”
Monique Worrell, the State Attorney for the Ninth Judicial Circuit in Orlando, speaks during the NAACP 5114 Marion County Branch 41st Freedom Fund and Awards Banquet at the Klein Conference Center at the College of Central Florida in Ocala, Fla. on Friday, April 28, 2023. [Bruce Ackerman/Ocala Gazette] 2023.
Correction: The initial article identified the wrong senator who criticized Worrell and has been updated.
Monique H. Worrell, the state attorney for Florida’s 9th Judicial Circuit, told hundreds in the audience Friday night for the Marion County NAACP Freedom Fund gala that she anticipates that Gov. Ron DeSantis will take steps to remove her from office, perhaps as soon as next week.
DeSantis has publicly accused Worrell, whose district encompasses Orange and Osceola counties, of not holding criminals “accountable” following a Feb. 27 shooting that ended in the death of three people, including a 9-year-old child. The alleged shooter, 19-year-old Keith Moses, was on probation at the time of the incident. Moses has a checkered juvenile record, most of which occurred before Worrell took office Jan. 1, 2021.
U.S. Republican Senator Scott also publicly expressed concerns that the murders were the result of Worrell’s “soft on crime” policies.
Worrell told the crowd that she was shaken by the shootings, in part because of her own family.
“When Keith Moses (allegedly) walked through the streets of Pine Hills on a rampage, shooting and killing three innocent people, one of whom was a 9-year-old little girl,” Worrell said she was horrified at the news, noting one of her own sons is 9 years old.
“I immediately began to mourn with the people of Pine Hills and the suffering that they were enduring. I had no idea at that time that my horror had only begun. Because almost as quickly as it happened, a senator in Washington D.C., the governor and my local law enforcement (leader) jumped into action to make that tragedy my responsibility,” Worrell told the crowd.
“Our local sheriff went on television and talked about how the individual (Moses) had 19 arrests and zero convictions and how law enforcement is doing their job and the state attorney needs to ensure accountability. What he didn’t say though, was really important. Number one, when a juvenile is arrested, their arrest never ever, ever results in a conviction, no matter what. Juveniles are not convicted, they are adjudicated. So, while it is technically accurate to say that the juvenile was arrested 19 times and had zero convictions, it was equally misleading, because a juvenile who is not charged in adult court will never have a conviction,’’ Worrell said.
Other news outlets have reported that Moses was adjudicated many times as a juvenile and was committed to serving sentences but also had a history of not complying with court-ordered supervision.
“He also neglected to mention that the bulk of those arrests happened before I was even elected. He also neglected to mention that on the one arrest that did happen since I was elected, for possession of marijuana, there was a firearm in the car. And it was a deputy who said he was going to test the firearm for DNA. And he never did. Nor did they ever present charges for possession of a firearm to my office for prosecution.”
According to Worrell, many of the contextual details came out after the sheriff’s press conference; however, DeSantis, whom she frequently referred to as a “dictator,” had already entered the fray.
“And the senator (Republican Rick Scott) began calling for our resignations and my removal. And the governor sent letters demanding that I produce information regarding the case. And after all the production took place, there wasn’t a basis to remove me,” Worrell told the crowd.
“From the day that I took office, there was obstacle after obstacle that was placed in my way. They didn’t like what I said, they didn’t like how I said it,” she noted.
While some were accusing Worrell of being “anti-law enforcement,” others, especially members of the Black community, have complained she is not tough enough on prosecuting officers who they feel have acted in a manner they didn’t like.
Some of those complaining, Worrell said, may not grasp the restrictions of the law. “As the chief law enforcement officer of the 9th Judicial Circuit, the only authority I have is to enforce laws that currently exist,” she said.
Worrell believes the efforts to have her removed have not stopped and described it as a “witch hunt.”
Earlier Friday morning, Worrell said, a Republican state committeewoman, Debbie Galvin, called someone who worked in Worrell’s office asking for information about two human trafficking cases that prosecutors Worrell’s office had dropped.
“She said she needed it for an event with the governor on Monday and then went on to talk about how these prosecutors across the state are not following the law. And you know, they need to be stopped or something along those lines,” Worrell said.
Worrell said when her office reached back to Galvin by phone, “She had no comment and hung up the phone pretty abruptly.”
Neither the governor’s office nor Galvin have responded to the “Gazette’s” request for comment.
It wasn’t only the call from Galvin that elevated Worrell’s concerns about the governor’s inquiry.
“About a week ago,’’ she said, “I received a letter from the Central Florida Police Chiefs Association, again requesting a lot of data about my first two years as state attorney, again, I think, to supplement the governor’s request.”
Worrell believes this is part of “an ongoing attempt by Tallahassee to build a basis to remove her.”
As to local law enforcement, “I think that they always had an agenda to try to figure out how to get me out of office as quickly as possible. And it’s just become more obvious within probably the last six months or so by different interactions that we’ve had,” said Worrell in an interview prior to the event.
“But then to receive a very official letter from the Police Chiefs Association, basically requesting all of the data regarding cases and prosecution of cases since I took office? It’s unprecedented,’’ she said. “No other state attorney has ever been requested to provide this type of information.”
DeSantis has already demonstrated his will to remove an elected state attorney if he disagrees with their decisions. In August, he removed Hillsborough County State Attorney Andrew Warren from office, accusing him of not enforcing certain laws. Warren, a Democrat who said DeSantis’ action was politically motivated, is suing the governor to get his job back.
The increase in violent juvenile crime statewide has created some concerns that sentencing laws for juvenile justice are not restrictive enough. “I agree,’’ Worrell told the “Gazette.’’ “Absolutely! I proposed reforming laws that would give the juvenile system more teeth.”
But Worrell said that in her role as state attorney, she can only enforce the laws that are in place, unlike DeSantis, who can pressure the legislature to change the law to his liking.
Worrell’s office provided the “Gazette” with proposed legislation she offered in January to State Rep. LaVon Bracy Davis that would give the court and the prosecutors more discretion over determining a minimum amount of time that would be served by juveniles when they commit violent crimes. (Read Worrell’s Memorandum- Legislative Action Request – Juvenile Justice Reform 01-24-23)
“Currently, neither prosecutors nor judges have discretion over what happens to children when they are sentenced in the juvenile system,’’ she explained. “It is the Department of Juvenile Justice, which, ironically, is appointed by the governor. So, he does have control over the policies within the Department of Juvenile Justice.”
Worrell pointed out, “While there has been a boatload of legislation passed in this legislative session, juvenile justice reform was not one of them.”
Davis did not respond to the “Gazette’s request for comment prior to publishing this article.
Worrell noted that a week following the Pine Hills shootings, there was a very similar mass murder in Brevard County involving “an individual with a very similar lengthy criminal history,” but so far, DeSantis has been silent about that tragic incident.
Similarly, nearly a month later, Marion County would reel from the death of three teens allegedly at the hands of three young males, two of whom are teens with a history of criminal infractions and one was on probation at the time of the shootings.
William Gladson, the 5th Circuit State Attorney, has not drawn the same attention from DeSantis or other Republican leaders. Worrell believes that’s because both Gladson and Brevard County State Attorney Phil Archer are Republicans.
“And let me be really clear, I’m not proposing that DeSantis should [give Gladson or Archer attention] because the reality is prosecutors do not have control over the actions of individuals who have served their sentences for whatever crimes they’ve previously committed on what they’re going to do,’’ she said.
“Since the (Pine Hills) mass shooting, there have been several other shootings in the Orlando area, many of them by individuals who have no criminal history. So, a criminal history isn’t determinative in and of itself of whether or not someone’s capable of engaging in catastrophic gun violence,” Worrell told the “Gazette.”
Worrell, who is a Democrat, believes her party affiliation isn’t the only reason she’s being targeted by DeSantis.
“I think that a lot of the legislation that he’s passed shows where he stands with his views on cultural diversity and women in positions of power. I think that in a democracy, whether you’re a Democrat or Republican, you should be very concerned that, you know, the democracy is being undermined.”