By Werner Lange.
As material facts surrounding Trayvon Martin’s murder continue to emerge, it is increasingly clear that this sordid case of crime in the streets is compounded by crime in the suites, especially the one located in the State Attorney’s office for Florida’s 18th Judicial Circuit headed, for decades, by Norman R. Wolfinger, a prosecutor with a very troublesome track record on race relations and selective prosecution.
The latest and most glaring illustration of Wolfinger’s biased modus operandi was his attempt to derail a thorough investigation of Trayvon’s murder by the son of a retired state Supreme Court magistrate. For reasons yet to be revealed, Wolfinger took it upon himself to drive some 50 miles on the night of the murder to the crime scene in Sanford and personally intervene in this case which, as a result, remained secluded from scrutiny for weeks afterwards. An intent by one officer to at least charge the killer with manslaughter was quickly squelched and he was released, a miscarriage of justice that outraged the local Black community which was determined not to let this latest murder of a Black youth by a White gunman be swept under the rug. Some three weeks after Trayvon’s murder, the conspiracy of silence was broken, explosively, and Wolfinger was finally forced to recuse himself. The abuse of power by Wolfinger to stop justice in Trayvon’s case, unlike in so ma!
ny previous instances over his long career as State Attorney, ultimately failed.
Early in his career, in 1985, Wolfinger refused to file any criminal charges against a man who shot and permanently blinded a 16-year old boy visiting his girlfriend after mistaking him for a burglar. Wolfinger also convinced the grand jury not to indict the shooter claiming that he had a right to use force to stop the boy from fleeing; subsequently, the parents filed a civil lawsuit and were awarded nearly $400,000 in damages by a jury. In 1986, Wolfinger refused to heed the demands from MADD to fire a colleague who pleaded guilty to drunk driving. In 1988, Wolfinger, a conservative Republican, refused to investigate a case of three fellow Republicans who were accused of violating state election law by contributing to each other’s political campaigns in Republican-controlled Seminole County. More sinister was Wolfinger’s refusal in 1991 to charge a Sanford City Councilman with a felony for buying $20 worth of crack cocaine because there allegedly was no criminal int!
ent behind the purchase. In a similar case of failure to prosecute criminal officials, Wolfinger did next to nothing in 1992 about an investigation he nominally headed into serious allegations of repeated physical abuse of suspects, mostly Black, by county drug agents; the case went before a county grand jury which found that suspects had been indeed beaten by agents but ruled that evidence was insufficient to indict anyone. More recently, Wolfinger failed to file criminal charges in 2010 against a Deputy Police Chief found guilty of fixing traffic tickets since allegedly there was no financial benefit derived to the chief for the crime.
In a case hauntingly similar to the Trayvon Martin murder, Wolfinger also failed to file any charges against two White security guards who shot and killed a 16-year old Black boy on July 16, 2005. Travares McGill, who had no driver’s license, was in a parking lot of a Sanford apartment complex dropping off a passenger when the security guards approached him without identifying themselves and flashed a bright light into his face causing him to apparently panick and drive away. The guards, claiming self-defense, opened fire with their 9mm pistols and two bullets struck the youth in the back; one penetrated his heart and killed him. After two months of no action in this case by Wolfinger, the local NAACP held a protest meeting demanding the guards be brought to justice. Wolfinger responded by claiming he could not take action or even answer questions about the killing since he had not received a report about it from the Florida Department of Law Enforcement. However, even!
after receiving that report, Wolfinger still declined to file charges against the guards, one the son of a former police officer and the other a police volunteer who had been accused of using racial slurs in an unrelated case. Four months after the killing of McGill, the county grand jury handed up indictments of manslaughter and shooting into an occupied vehicle against the guards. Both were found innocent of the charges in a short trial in 2007 before a Circuit Judge, but one guard was fined $377 for failure to possess a security guard license while on duty.
This disturbing pattern of selective prosecution and institutionalized racism by the State Attorney came to light over two decades when the results of a survey of Wolfinger’s racially differentiated calls for capital punishment were released. In first degree murder cases brought before him from 1986 to 1991, Wolfinger sought the death penalty three times more often if victims were White than if they were Black or Hispanic. In none of the three Seminole County murder cases in which the victim was Black did Wolfinger seek the death penalty; but in seven similar cases in which the victim was White, Wolfinger sought the death penalty four times. In one racially charged case, the 1990 murder of a White service-station manager by one White and two Black teenagers, Wolfinger sought the death penalty for only the Black defendants.
According to the official website of Wolfingers office, his mission as a State Attorney is “pursuing truth and justice, treating victims compassionately, and protecting the public”. If and when justice is finally served in the Trayvon Martin murder case, that self-serving statement will be exposed as convenient cover for crime in the suites.
Werner Lange is an Assistant Prof. of Sociology at Edinboro University of Pennslyvania