MANATEE -- After 24 years on the job, Earl Moreland has decided not to seek a seventh term as state attorney.
The chief prosecutor for the 12th Judicial Circuit, which includes Manatee, Sarasota and DeSoto counties, Moreland will retire after his current term expires in January 2013.
“You know when it’s time,” said the 62-year-old Moreland, who plans to enjoy spending more time with his wife, Lori, five children and six grandchildren. “I had a good, long, satisfying career. I just felt it was time for a change.”
Moreland is touting his chief assistant attorney, fellow Republican Ed Brodsky, to replace him.
“Ed Brodsky is going to run in my place, and I think he will be excellent,” Moreland said.
Moreland was first elected as state attorney in 1988 and has served six consecutive terms. Except for his first term, when he ran in a primary against fellow Republicans Bob Lee and Vernon David and scored the majority of votes with no Democrat opponent, Moreland has not had anyone willing to take him on.
“The fact that he ran unopposed all those times speaks volumes,” said Fred Mercurio, a local criminal defense lawyer who has known Moreland for 26 years. “I think what he has done in his years was always in the best interests of the people of the 12th Circuit, and he did it in an honorable fashion.”
Many say Moreland could have garnered a lot of national recognition for himself over the years, because his office has handled a tantalizing list of high-profile murder cases with national interest.
Those cases include the 2006 trial of Joseph Smith for the murder of 11-year-old Carlie Brucia, of Sarasota; the recent trial of Michael King for the murder of North Port’s Denise Amber Lee; the decade-old trial of Jose Luis Del De Toro Jr. for the murder of Sheila Bellush; and the so-called Jerry Springer Show Murder, which was committed against Nancy Campbell-Panitz by her husband, Ralf Panitz, after they were on “The Jerry Springer Show” along with Panitz’s then girlfriend and present wife, Eleanor Panitz.
But Moreland never stepped into the spotlight in any of those cases, notes Walt Smith, court administrator for the 12th District Court.
“He could be out there getting a lot more publicity for himself and he doesn’t,” Smith said. “You never see him arguing his cases in the media. He never uses his office as a bully pulpit.”
For Moreland, two specific cases, both in Manatee County, top the list of his achievements.
The first is the conviction Moreland got against Daniel Burns Jr., the accused killer of Florida Highway Patrolman Jeff Young.
“What made the Burns case memorable is that Burns was convicted in 1987 before I took office, and the conviction was later reversed,” Moreland said. “I retried that case with now-Judge Deno Economou, and Burns was convicted again and given the death penalty on a 12-0 jury vote. We went through an awful lot with Trooper Young’s family. It was very emotional and meaningful to get the conviction.”
Burns’ death warrant has been signed and he remains on Death Row, Moreland said.
The second case never went to trial. It was the guilty plea and life-in-prison sentence for Larry Parks in the 2000 killings of Sherry Brannon and her two young daughters in Panther Ridge.
“What made the Parks case so memorable is that it was also very emotional,” Moreland said. “The family was split and torn over whether to seek the death penalty or to get Parks to provide facts on the case in return for a plea. We ended up pleaing Parks to life to benefit the family. That was also a very satisfying outcome.”
In Moreland’s tenure, law enforcement and prosecution of crimes have changed radically.
“I think the biggest change is the improvement and importance of criminalistics, especially DNA testing,” Moreland said.
“Also, I think the professionalism of law enforcement has increased.”
Moreland praises the new racketeering laws that have put many gang members in jail.
“I think the new laws have reduced gang violence and made the public safer,” Moreland said. “But the real answer is education to prevent people from going into gangs.”
Budget a challenge
Moreland says he is stunned by how large his operation really is.
He has 170 employees, including 70 prosecutors, working out of four offices. His annual budget is $12 million.
“I have 15 criminal courts operating every day, handling felonies, misdemeanors and juvenile cases,” Moreland said. “Last year, we filed more than 25,000 criminal cases.
“The biggest challenge for my successor will be the budget,” Moreland added. “The state attorney is only as good as the people who work here. The criminal cases keep coming in, victims still need justice.”
There are 20 circuit operations in Florida like Moreland’s in size, but none are like it in tone, says Dennis Nales, a retired chief assistant attorney under Moreland.
“Earl personally greets every person who works for him and knows their family and what is happening in their lives,” Nales said.
“He actually walks around each office, calling people by name. People from the outside are amazed when they come to his office and see it happening. I’ve had people say, ‘Our state attorney doesn’t even know the names of some of his prosecutors, let alone his secretaries.’ ”
Moreland says he was just doing what came naturally to him.
“The thing I am most proud of in my career is the commitment of the people who work for me,” Moreland said. “In each one of those 15 criminal courts, I have three or four people handling caseloads and my attorneys rely on them. I always say my attorneys deserve the credit for any success I have had, and their success is from the staff handling the caseloads.”
Moreland’s staff meetings are like being in ethics class, says former prosecutor Charles Roberts, now a 12th Circuit judge.
“His philosophy is that justice is the goal, not simply winning the case,” Roberts said.
Moreland didn’t always go by the strict letter of the law, Mercurio says.
“There are some times when you are flexible as a prosecutor and, for instance, instead of seeking a death penalty you work out a deal that is right for the victims and all the families,” Mercurio said. “Earl tries to do the right thing. Instead of being blinded by the law, he’s got a good sense of what is right.”
Said Nales: “His message for everyone was to be professional in everything you did. He wouldn’t tolerate not being prepared, not knowing the facts of your case, not having communicated with the victim. Ethics in the practice of law is what he stands for.”
Of the 30 judges presently in the 12th Circuit, about half worked for Moreland before going to the bench.
The list includes judges Ed Nicholas, Debra Riva, Janet Dunnigan, Marc Gilner, Deno Economou and Roberts.
“I think it shows the caliber of people who came through that office and the legal abilities of the staff he tried to put together,” Nales said.
Richard Dymond, Herald reporter, can be reached at 748-0411, ext. 6686.