On the same day Julianne Holt was elected to serve as the public defender in Hillsborough County in 1992, Harry Lee Coe was elected state attorney.
After Coe committed suicide in 2000, he was succeeded in office by Mark Ober, who served for another 16 years, before Democrat Andrew Warren narrowly defeated him in a major upset in November.
Although he’s only been on the job officially for a little more than four months, Holt says that in some ways, they’ve been the best four months of her illustrious career in the Hillsborough judicial system.
“What a fresh breath of air it is to practice law in Hillsborough County right now, and it is clearly due to the leadership of Mr. Warren. He deserves the credit for it,” Holt to a crowd of local Democrats at the Hillsborough County Democratic Executive Committee on Monday night in Ybor City.
Since taking office, Warren has been reviewing about two dozen death penalty cases that he inherited from Ober. He’s already announced that he won’t use the powers of the state in two of those cases, a move applauded by Holt.
“Ladies and gentlemen, we’ve had up to 29 death penalty cases pending in our office, we don’t have the resources — people resources or monetary resources — to handle that type of workload, even if I live to be one hundred,” she lamented, adding that in the 24 plus years that she’s served as public defender, Warren is the first prosecutor she feels give him time and respect, something that didn’t happen under his predecessors.
“He’s actually going to read the materials that I send to him,” she said. “He’s going to take them into consideration, and I’m not going to get everything I ask for, but … I can sleep at night knowing that there’s fairness and equity, passion, empathy and compassion because this man not only wants public safety in our community but he wants to change people’s lives in the criminal justice system.”
Warren ran an aggressive campaign in ultimately ousting Ober last year, saying that he was too focused on conviction rates than in making the community safer. He charged that under Ober, juveniles were being charged as adults in Hillsborough County more than “just about anywhere in the entire country.”
In a debate, Warren cited a Harvard University study that said Hillsborough was one of the worst counties in the entire country in handling death penalty cases. (The case also mentions Pinellas, Duval and Miami-Dade, alleging that all four shared a “history of overzealous prosecutions, inadequate defense lawyering, and a pattern of racial bias and exclusion.”)
Holt said the job as a public defender has taken an emotional toll on her over the years, but she had a renewed sense of purpose in seeing “true reform” happening in the community when it comes to criminal justice issue.
“This is a dream come true for me,” she enthused.
Left unsaid in her rhapsody towards her colleague was that in fact Holt endorsed Ober over Warren in last fall’s election.
In her letter of endorsement (available on the local FloridaYouJudge.com blog), Holt wrote that based on her knowledge of Ober’s “legal acumen and professionalism, as well as the accomplishments made under his leadership,” she was backing him in the contest.
After she was finished, Warren, who was in attendance, quipped, “How much do I owe you?” without further comment.
Although the duties of her job are generally of a nonpartisan manner, Holt also proudly spoke about her Democratic Party roots during an era when it wasn’t popular to be a “D” in the county.
“All of you know that for a long time, there was some tremendous efforts by the other party that if you were someone that was in office and they could pull you away, and tell you that they were going to promise you to do lots of things for you, that you should switch parties, and I stayed as committed as I could stay,” she said, referring to politics in Hillsborough County in the 1990s.
That certainly wasn’t the case last fall, when not only did Warren stunningly oust a 16-year incumbent in Ober, but Hillary Clinton defeated Donald Trump for president by more than six percentage points.