Angela Corey and Matt Shirk at his campaign launch
Picture this. You are a twelve-year-old sitting in jail charged with first degree murder, a crime you maintain that you did not commit, and the public defender assigned the task of vindicating you has too close an association with the person wanting you prosecuted to the full extent of the law.
It would not exactly instil you with overwhelming confidence, would it?
Such is the situation for Cristian Fernandez, a child whose future is resting in the hands of 4th Judicial Circuit Public Defender Matt Shirk. Although Cristian may be oblivious to the relationship between Shirk and State Attorney Angela Corey, those who aren’t view it as a conflict of interest.
Their association has been a long and interesting one. From Shirk completing his internship “working under the direct tutelage of Angela Corey” to publicly supporting each other as Republicans seeking re-election to their respective offices. Shirk is North Florida’s first Republican to be elected to the office he now holds.
On December 6, 2011, he launched a fund raising campaign at the home of Republican money man Mike Hightower which was co-hosted by none other than Angela Corey. How, or why, Shirk did not see his ill conceived notion to have Corey present as a conflict of interest escapes me, particularly at a time when Corey was doing her utmost to have Shirk accept a plea deal on behalf of his client.
The man Shirk surprisingly defeated in the 2008 election, Bill White, is on record as saying “Both should have known better to have her displayed as a co-host. It damages the image of the Public Defender’s Office. You should be thinking of those things when you are in public office.” This point was clearly lost on Shirk and, not for the first time, his judgement has been brought into question.
In January of 2009, Shirk joined Corey in visiting Nassau and Clay counties for the latter’s swearing in ceremonies. Given the disparate duties for which they were elected, it quite rightly raised more than a few eyebrows.
In February of the same year the President of the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, John Wesley Hall, referred to Shirk as someone “who cleaned out the experienced death penalty lawyers to save money, a public defender who ran with the endorsement of the police union and a personal friend of the DA on a campaign to save money on public defense” adding “Doesn’t it violate the Sixth Amendment for an accused person to have a public defender who was elected with an inherent conflict of interest of endorsements by the police union and promises(essentially) to not be zealous in representing indigent clients?” Corey herself was endorsed by the very same police union during her campaign, making Hall’s observations difficult to counter.
To Shirk’s credit, he has shown much compassion and an understanding of the “extenuating circumstances” surrounding Cristian’s case for which Corey has shown complete disregard. He is also to be commended for believing in Cristian’s innocence and rejecting the State’s deal which involved a plea to second degree murder. Yet, like the Jacksonville media, he is remiss in not correcting the misinformation disseminated by Corey since Cristian’s arrest in March of last year.
Matt Shirk's post on Facebook
Supporters of Cristian have been voicing their concerns regarding the defense and its handling of his case on social media internet sites. The Save Cristian Fernandez page on Facebook is one such site, with one supporter suggesting “good lawyers could definitely win this” and another alluding to the perceived conflict of interest when saying “[there] must be one lawyer out there you can trust”.
Shirk posted a genial response and offered supporters the opportunity to email him with questions which he is “allowed to answer”. He then tried to allay the fears of many by proclaiming “I think people will be surprised when they hear ALL the true facts”. For Cristian’s sake, we can only hope he and his team have left no stone unturned in their search for the truth.
Fortunately, the State’s case is not a particularly strong one, evidenced by Corey seeking an indictment on a new charge of sexual battery when her hopes for a plea deal dissipated. A motion was filed by the defense last Friday seeking dismissal of a “defective indictment” and a plea of not guilty was entered on Cristian’s behalf. Judge Mallory Cooper set a new hearing date for February 8.
A petition asking the Court to reverse its decision to have Cristian tried as an adult now has over 178,000 signatures from people showing their support. Cristian will turn thirteen this Saturday, January 14 and a ‘Cards for Cristian Fernandez’ page has been created on Facebook to offer him “comfort and hope”. Cards can be mailed to:
Duval Regional Detention Center
1241 East 8th Street
Jacksonville, FL 32206-4099