It was June 2020 and protests over the murder of George Floyd were erupting across the nation when Monique Worrell climbed the City Hall steps in Orlando, Florida, during a rally against police brutality.
The former public defender, criminal justice reform advocate, law professor and prosecutor was running to be a new type of state attorney for Florida’s 9th Judicial Circuit, the third most populous in the state. Taking the microphone, Worrell made a pledge: If you vote for me, you will get a prosecuting officer unafraid to denounce the disproportionate rates of incarceration of Black and Brown people, unbowed in advocacy of criminal justice reform and unafraid to support diversion programs and other alternatives to jail.
The rally became a turning point in Worrell’s campaign. She garnered endorsements from U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders and future Vice President Kamala Harris. Recording star John Legend supported her, and thousands of campaign donations poured in from around the country. Five months later, the daughter of immigrants from Costa Rica and Jamaica was elected overwhelmingly. Sixty-six percent of voters in Orange and Osceola counties cast their ballots for Worrell in the general election.
It took one man this summer to nullify those votes.
On Aug. 9, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis issued an executive order suspending Worrell from her position as the top state prosecutor in Orlando. While Worrell says she is proud of the reform-minded outlook she brought to her job, her prosecution rate was similar to that of two of her predecessors, and the most recent available data shows crimes dropped in her jurisdiction in 2021.
That didn’t stop DeSantis from characterizing Worrell, the only Black female state attorney in Florida, as lenient against people accused of violent crimes and accusing her of incompetence and neglect of duty, citing a low overall incarceration rate during Worrell’s tenure and her handling of three high-profile cases.
Attorneys with the voting rights and criminal justice reform departments of the Southern Poverty Law Center are assessing potential legal action on behalf of voters disenfranchised by Worrell’s suspension.
“Instead of honoring the will of the voters – who overwhelmingly supported Ms. Worrell – Gov. DeSantis has gone down a dangerous, authoritarian path,” said Avner Shapiro, a senior supervising attorney with the SPLC’s democracy and voting rights group.
“When Ms. Worrell followed through on her campaign promises and exercised the discretion she has under the law to pursue new policies opposed by the governor, he responded by coming up with bogus reasons for replacing her with an unelected, less independent state attorney, more to his liking. In doing so, he disenfranchised thousands of Floridian voters and undermined the integrity of our democratic system of government. Together with our partners, we at the SPLC will do what we can to combat Gov. DeSantis’ assault on the voting rights of Floridians and their ability to elect state attorneys who share their values and priorities.”
Former justices support Worrell
Last month, Worrell filed a petition asking the Florida Supreme Court to restore her to her position, arguing that DeSantis has failed to meet the standards set in the state constitution for removing an elected official from office. In the lawsuit, Worrell argues DeSantis’ order did not “identify a single, specific policy or practice” at odds with Florida law and “instead attempts to infer that she has adopted practices or policies that result in reduced incarceration rates.”
“Moreover,” Worrell and her attorneys argue, “because there is no duty for a state attorney to maximize incarceration rates, lower-than-average incarceration rates are no evidence of neglect of duty or incompetence.”
Other issues Worrell has made her own – including reviewing life sentences for people who are incarcerated who were children when they committed crimes – follow mandates set by the U.S. Supreme Court and subsequently codified into Florida Law.
In two friend-of-the-court briefs filed Sept. 19, five former Florida Supreme Court justices joined more than 120 current and former elected officials from Florida and across the country backing Worrell’s petition to get her job back. DeSantis’ action, the briefs state, reflects a basic misunderstanding of the prosecutor’s role and improperly interferes with prosecutorial discretion and independence.
The move by DeSantis, echoing his August 2022 suspension of Tampa-area State Attorney Andrew Warren, another progressive Democrat, is the latest hardball tactic by Republican politicians across the country to remove or disempower duly elected officials, all of them Democrats, because of policy disagreements. In the past year, Tennessee Republicans expelled rival lawmakers from the state General Assembly for violating decorum by showing their support for an anti-gun protest on the chamber floor; Ohio Republicans tried to limit the ability of voters to amend the state constitution by majority vote; and Wisconsin Republicans suggested they might try to nullify the election of a state Supreme Court justice who disagrees with their agenda.
Taken together, the actions appear to be designed by politicians in power to diminish the electoral influence of their political opponents and the ability of elected representatives to exercise their authority.
Sense of deep alarm
As the legal fight plays out in Florida, reverberations among the hundreds of thousands who voted for Worrell, as well as the people caught up in the criminal justice system, are already being felt.
Andrew Bain, an Orange County circuit judge and member of the conservative Federalist Society who was appointed by DeSantis to replace Worrell, has suggested he intends to favor prosecuting youths accused of violent offenses as adults. He also eliminated several of the office’s pretrial diversion programs, saying he would launch his own versions soon. The diversion programs, some of which predated Worrell, allowed veterans, young people and people accused of drug-related crimes to avoid conviction for certain nonviolent offenses.
Worrell has gone from managing a busy office of prosecutors to a life in limbo. Florida statutes prevent her from practicing law while she remains suspended from her job. Looking for work as she fights her suspension, Worrell says she intends to run for reelection.
Among voters who cast ballots for Worrell, there is a sense of deep alarm.
On Aug. 10, the steps of Orlando City Hall, the same place where Worrell had taken the podium three years earlier at the George Floyd rally, became a demonstration site again. This time voters, local community leaders and Democratic politicians gathered to protest Worrell’s suspension the day before.
Rajib Chowdhury, 21, was there. The recent graduate of the University of Central Florida said he voted for Worrell because he agrees with her reform-minded outlook.
Her removal “goes against democratic norms,” Chowdhury said. “We elect people, and we give them these privileges and we entrust them with making good decisions. We also say, ‘We want you to abide by the promises you made,’ but it is ultimately the voters who give this power to law enforcement.”
David Caicedo, 36, grew up in New York City, the son of immigrants from Colombia who raised him with a keen awareness of his Afro-Colombian roots. An Orlando resident, he said he voted for Worrell because “she just had a different message that was more community-based rather than punitive – as much as a prosecutor can be. She opened a dialogue with the community. She has been trying to give young people who are accused of crimes different alternatives to have a productive and full future.”
Her removal, Caicedo said, “is very concerning, very upsetting. It’s like an alarm going off in my head like, damn, what is happening to our democracy?”
Among social justice and civil rights groups in the Orlando area, the removal of Worrell feels like a betrayal.
“I knew what I was getting when I voted for her and it was taken away,” said Jasmine Burney-Clark, founder and consulting director of the voting rights organization Equal Ground, citing a task force Worrell established to evaluate, on a case-by-case basis, the appropriateness of seeking the death penalty, and programs she put in place as alternatives to prison for first-time and youthful offenders.
“As someone who heads a voting rights organization, I can say that this is an exact example of what it looks like when your vote does not count.”
Worrell instilled hope
Voters in the Orlando area are not the only ones deeply distressed by the removal of Worrell. During her tenure, she instilled new hope among incarcerated people in her jurisdiction who had been sentenced as children to life in prison without parole.
Such sentences were ruled unconstitutional by the U.S. Supreme Court in 2012. That year, the court ruled in Miller v. Alabama and a companion case, Jackson v. Hobbs, that mandatory life-without-parole sentences for children 17 or younger who are convicted of homicide are unconstitutional.
The decision requires judges to conduct new sentencing hearings to consider children’s individual character and life circumstances, including age, as well as the circumstances of the crime. To date, more than 1,000 people who had been condemned as children to die in prison have been resentenced because of Miller, and hundreds have been released.
Not all prosecutors, however, are willing to revisit such cases. As state attorney, Worrell made the issue a priority, actively directing prosecutors in her office to review the cases of children who had been convicted and sentenced and to propose fair resolutions depending on the case.
“Her office either made offers or did not fight hearings when it was clear that the juveniles had paid their debt to society,” said Roseanne Eckert, a criminal trial attorney in Orlando who ran the Florida Juvenile Resentencing Project at Florida International University College of Law.
“The media would have you believe she’s sending inmates to Disney World. No, agreeing to 25-year sentences is what she’s doing, which is a long time. Her policies are to show mercy and give people hope as opposed to just throwing away the key.”
Seemed like a miracle
Julio Collazo, 44, is a paralegal with a probate law firm in Orlando and a student of paralegal studies at Valencia College. But until October 2021, he was incarcerated in the state prison system. Convicted of felony murder at 17 when a gang drug deal went wrong, Collazo was given a life sentence without the possibility of parole.
Vocal about his deep regret and the influence of older gang members when he was a teenager, Collazo disavowed his gang affiliation in prison and became a model among the prison population. Through correspondence courses his mother helped finance, he earned a GED diploma. Though believing he would spend his life in prison, Collazo nevertheless continued his studies, earning a paralegal certification from the University of Florida and dedicating himself to helping others in prison with their questions about criminal and civil law.
When the Supreme Court decision was announced in 2015, Collazo began seeking review of his sentence, working with a public defender and then with a private attorney. But it wasn’t until Worrell came into office that his case got a look, he said.
“It was a remarkable change,” Collazo said. “She gave the green light to her prosecutors to come to the table with attorneys representing juveniles. She really understood what the Supreme Court intended with Miller v. Alabama. She didn’t pick sides, she just said, ‘OK, let’s come to the table, let’s see what you’ve got.’”
The review of Collazo’s case yielded what to him was a miracle. Worrell’s office did not object to his release. He had been behind bars for 25 years.
“I remember the colors, so many colors,” Collazo said of the day he walked out of prison. “I changed who I am. There are prosecutors who think you can’t do that. And there are people who think you can.”
Shaped by experience
The determination that people can change, and that the criminal justice system must, is what drew Worrell to the law in the first place.
As a child and to this day, Worrell, originally from Brooklyn, New York, has lived with the traumatic impact on families and communities of incarceration. Her eldest brother, 15 years her senior, has been in and out of jail for most of Worrell’s life. Worrell said he began suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder and bipolar disorder when he was discharged from the U.S. Air Force. Misdiagnosed for years, he began self-medicating, Worrell said, and eventually became addicted to cocaine. Swept up in the crack epidemic of the early 1980s, he was arrested for drug-related crimes and ended up in jail.
In Worrell’s middle-class family home, the anguish of her mother, a registered nurse who worked for the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, and her father, an electrician, over their eldest son permeated the air. Worrell said that despite her parents’ entreaties, incarceration never provided any help for her brother’s mental illness or his addiction. Like so many others, he became a repeat offender.
“The first time I learned that that’s what was happening, I was probably 7 or 8, and I decided that that was wrong. And we shouldn’t live in a world that treats people who serve this country and suffer from mental illness that way,” Worrell said. “And I wanted to do something about it.”
As she grew older, Worrell said she began to better understand the loop of mental illness, addiction and crime her brother was caught in – and the impact on her entire family.
When bond was needed for her brother, her parents paid it. When her brother was out of jail, his mental health challenges and addiction still worried the family. Even though they paid for multiple rehabilitation programs, there was always fear when the calls came in the middle of the night or early in the morning. “They were always waiting for the other shoe to drop,” Worrell said.
Always, Worrell said, there was “a criminal justice system that wasn’t just and did not treat him justly or fairly and that incarcerated repeatedly someone who suffered from mental illness and addiction.”
The pain led Worrell to a deep interest in criminal justice reform and in the law. A stellar student, she was accepted into a vaunted program at Jamaica High School in Queens, where she took law classes. At St. John’s University, a private Catholic university nearby, she majored in psychology and minored in criminal justice, with an eye to becoming a public defender. The day after she graduated from law school at the University of Florida Worrell interviewed for a job as a public defender in Orlando. The next day, she started work and never looked back.
‘We need to talk’
Worrell built her career, first as a public defender and then as a private defense attorney. While practicing law, she also became a professor at the University of Florida College of Law. A few years later, she co-founded the Criminal Justice Center at the law school, training both prosecutors and defense attorneys on mass incarceration, racial bias and disproportionate minority representation.
Meanwhile, a reform-minded Black woman had taken the helm as state attorney for the 9th Circuit. Aramis Ayala, who won an upset election in 2016 to become the first female Black state attorney in Florida, formed a Conviction Integrity Unit and recruited Worrell to become its director. With her background as a defense attorney, Worrell said she was not interested at first in working as a prosecutor. But for someone whose background was in criminal justice reform, the work was intriguing.
First conceived in the early 2000s when evidence began to build of the number of people across the country convicted of crimes they did not commit, the units function as internal checks on prosecutors, to prevent, identify and resolve wrongful convictions. Such convictions can be the result of official misconduct, perjury or false accusations, false or misleading forensic evidence, false confession or mistaken witness identification, among other factors. There are more than 115 conviction integrity units now in prosecutors’ offices around the country, but only five in Florida. The units have been involved in more than 670 of the country’s more than 3,280 exonerations, according to the National Registry of Exonerations.
Worrell took over the 9th Circuit conviction integrity unit, quickly learning that the prosecutor’s office was not immune from the issues that could lead to wrongful convictions.
But support for the work was not fated to last. As state attorney, Ayala created a firestorm by saying she would not seek the death penalty, in part pointing to racial inequities in death sentences.
Then-Gov. Rick Scott removed Ayala from handling capital cases. Ayala challenged the decision, but the Florida Supreme Court backed Scott. In May 2019, Ayala decided not to run for reelection. Her chief assistant, who was running for the seat, did not support the conviction integrity unit.
In July 2019, Worrell left the post – and Florida – for New York, becoming chief legal officer for Reform Alliance, a group founded by rap musicians Meek Mill and Jay-Z to reform probation and parole laws in the country.
But when the COVID-19 pandemic hit New York less than a year later, Worrell and her husband fled back to Florida, where they hoped to give their three children a way to make it through the pandemic without being shut into an apartment. In March 2020, she filed to enter the state attorney’s race. As rage around the country grew over the treatment of Black people at the hands of law enforcement Worrell got involved in the protests calling for criminal justice reform. First, she marched. Then she spoke.
“I decided that we needed to have different conversations,” Worrell said. “We needed to have conversations about disproportionate minority presentation in the criminal justice system. We needed to have conversations about mass incarceration and how the data shows that incarceration does nothing to reduce crime. We needed to talk about incarcerating children in detention and this legal fiction of calling a child an adult for the purpose of prosecution. We need to talk about police misconduct and abuse of power and how law enforcement abuses the Black and Brown communities that they are sworn to protect and serve. So, I decided that I would get in the race.”
Her message resonated with the electorate. But not with DeSantis. He began investigating Worrell almost as soon as she took office. And this August, he removed the chief prosecutor duly elected by the voters of Orange and Osceola counties.
Photo at top: In a photo from March 2023, Monique Worrell holds a press conference while serving as state attorney for Florida’s 9th Judicial Circuit. (Credit: Ricardo Ramirez Buxeda/Orlando Sentinel/TNS)