By Noreen Marcus, FloridaBulldog.org
When a young lawyer named Harold Fernandez Pryor Jr. trounced 20-year prosecutor Gregg Rossman to become Broward’s first African-American state attorney, many wondered: Harold who?
Yet voters knew enough about Pryor, 34, to choose him for a four-year term as the chief legal enforcer in Florida’s second-most populous county.He oversees 462 employees, including 213 prosecutors, for an annual salary of $174,641, according to his office.
Pryor starts his job while an extraordinary pandemic is scrambling court procedures and threatening to crowd jails with sick prisoners. The coronavirus is draining local government resources, including his $40-million budget.
And a defining event, the trial of Nikolas Cruz for the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School massacre, will begin soon. On Feb. 14, 2018 Cruz, now 22, slaughtered 17 students and adults, injured 17 others, and maimed the Parkland community for life.
During his campaign Pryor took some flak for signaling he’d retain his predecessor, Mike Satz, to continue on what Satz has called “the type of case the death penalty was designed for.”
Satz’s deal to prosecute Cruz
Pryor also kept Satz’s chief assistant, Jeff Marcus, around for the Cruz prosecution. He assigned veteran litigator Carolyn McCann to Satz’s team part-time.
A July 2019 New Times story revealed Satz’s practice of allowing at least some prosecutors to double-dip when they retire by paying them through a private St. Augustine company, SS Solutions. For example, Marcus would receive, in addition to a $430,000 lump sum and an $87,000 annual pension, his $170,000 full-time salary, according to the story.
“It might be legal but it certainly circumvents the [retirement] law,” said Howard Finkelstein, the just-retired Broward public defender. “I wouldn’t allow my senior people to do it.”
Neither would Pryor. He’s taking a different approach that he described last week to Florida Bulldog in his first post-election interview. Satz and Marcus are hourly employees with caps: $100 per hour for each, and up to 86.5 paid hours per month for Marcus and 125 hours for Satz — more once the trial begins.
Pryor said his decision to keep them on the case came after he spoke with Parkland families who were “generally satisfied” with the team. “I felt it was the right thing to do,” he said.
During his campaign Pryor told the Sun Sentinel he is personally against the death penalty but would follow the law.
‘He’s making the right choices’
The challenges posed by the overwhelming Parkland case and a public-health crisis seem daunting for a millennial who got his law license not quite eight years ago and spent just three of them as a state prosecutor.
But Pryor’s supporters, along with those who knew him when, insist he’s up to the job.
“He’s making the right choices at the right time with the right people,” said Fort Lauderdale Mayor Dean Trantalis, who contributed to Pryor’s campaign.
“Harold represents the new face of our community; he’s young, energetic, with a different perspective that I think will help enrich the fabric of Broward. So we’re proud to have him as our state attorney,” Trantalis said.
“His goal is to take it to the highest level that he can. That’s who Harold is, that’s not me BS-ing you. That’s what I know about the guy,” said Chris Saunders, a friend since the two met in 2007 as University of Florida undergraduates. Saunders is the assistant general counsel for Miami Dade College.
Pryor and Satz: Different worlds
Pryor’s affable openness, his background as a black man from a small town in west central Florida, and his expressed desire to achieve justice, not only win, place him leagues apart from Satz, his former boss.
He campaigned on promises to eradicate wrongful convictions, support therapeutic courts and decriminalize poverty. “My goal is just always to do the right thing, that has always been me,” Pryor said. “Sometimes it’s not the most popular thing, and I’m willing to accept that.”
It’s hard to imagine the tough, no-nonsense Satz saying such things. Over 44 years as state attorney, the Philadelphia native built a reputation as a champion for victims, especially police officers killed in the line of duty.
To his opponents he was a slow-to-evolve defender of the status quo who wasn’t above stretching the rules to gain a courtroom advantage.
Yet even a persistent foe praised his basic integrity. “He was unimpeachably honest and he saw the world the way Mike Satz saw the world,” said criminal defense lawyer Larry Davis.
“Harold’s gonna be a breath of fresh air,” added Davis, a member of Pryor’s transition team.
Meetings with chief judge
One welcome change is that Pryor communicates with his fellow stakeholders in the criminal justice system, said Gordon Weekes, his counterpart as the new Broward County Public Defender.
Both men are graduates of Nova Southeastern University Shepard Broad College of Law, though they weren’t classmates and, Weekes noted, they don’t socialize.
During 23 years as an assistant PD in Finkelstein’s office, “I don’t think I ever had a real conversation with Mike Satz about anything,” Weekes said. “He was hard and rigid and not open to seeing things from a different point of view, so it had to be to the mat every single time.
“Harold Pryor isn’t that kind of guy,” Weekes said. “He’s strong and tough and has his priorities, but you can be strong and tough and have priorities and also have a conversation about things. That is the essence of what we have to do.”
Broward Chief Judge Jack Tuter said he’s met several times with Pryor and Weekes to discuss strategies to cope with the latest COVID-19 lockdown and an increasing backlog of jury trials, as well as how to divert non-violent jail inmates to better placements.
“I understand they have exchanged case lists of about 90 folks in custody,” Tuter said. He’s hopeful they’ll accelerate the plea deal-making process.
Everybody knows their name
“I think our new state attorney will do an outstanding job,” the judge said. “He has many difficult decisions ahead, but I firmly believe the avenues of communication between his office and Gordon Weekes’s office will be extraordinarily beneficial to the criminal justice system.”
Pryor, who lives in Margate, is said to be rooted in a place where your family defines who you are. He and his wife, attorney Nikeisha Williams Pryor, have a 3-year-old son, Harold III (called Trey), and are expecting a daughter in May.
Dade City (population 6,500) near Tampa is Pryor’s hometown. His public-school alma mater, Pasco High, had educated only white students until a mass desegregation school busing plan finally arrived there about 1970. His family’s Florida progenitor five generations back was a freed former slave from Texas.
“Everybody knew the Pryors,” said Mignon Edwards, Harold Jr.’s high school guidance counselor, who also taught one of his two brothers.
She said his father is a retired corrections officer who talked high-risk kids into staying in school. His mother is a city clerk whom Edwards described as “vivacious” and the kind of parent whose single steely glance commands obedience.
“There was no playing in that house,” she said. “They knew what was important in order to be successful in life. They exhibited what it is to be a good family and respect each other. They’re just a very, very fine family.”
Athletic goal thwarted
That doesn’t mean they were immune to racism. “I’ve been racially profiled countless times in my life, from when I was a child right through to when I became an attorney,” Pryor said.
He had no serious scrapes with the law, Pryor said, but he did have drug-addicted relatives who got no help from the system and friends who had juvenile records.
That stuck with Pryor, but growing up in Dade City also taught him something about the benefits of community policing that urban kids never get to learn.
“Many white officers in my section of town went to school with our parents and coached us in the local police athletic league,” he said. “Rather than take you to the station they would threaten to call your mom, and it was just a different experience for me.”
A standout football player as well as an academic star in high school, Pryor was recruited by the UF Gators, but after one season as a defensive back, he was injured and out. That was crushing, especially for a black kid who aspired to a big-bucks career in sports, he said last week.
His father and uncles had played college football; he needed to set another goal. “The fear of my going back home and being a failure got me heavily involved in other things and I developed a passion for being a part of something bigger than myself,” Pryor said.
Timing, coalition helped
That turned out to be the law and establishing his own family. Pryor said he left the state attorney’s office for private practice four years ago because he had a child on the way and a prosecutor’s salary was simply inadequate.
When Pryor decided to run for state attorney, he benefited from good timing and a broad coalition of supporters.
Weekes was asked about the so-called “black wave” on Nov. 3 that swept into office not only him and Pryor, but Sheriff Gregory Tony, Clerk of Courts Brenda Forman and Supervisor of Elections Joe Scott. How did it happen?
The issues resonated with voters, he responded.
“Folks have really embraced the notion that there are real systemic flaws in the criminal justice system,” Weekes said. “They accept that disparities in the way minorities are treated are real, the war on drugs was a failed effort. That whole notion of super-predators born out of the crack epidemic was all demagogy and fear tactics. None of that was science.”
Pryor beat out seven other Democrats to win the August primary, normally the determinative race in blue Broward. He wasn’t the most radical candidate — that was Joe Kimok, who wanted to decriminalize heroin and prostitution. Nor was he Satz’s chosen heir apparent — that was Sarahnell Murphy. She remains with the office.
A wave of change?
Pryor built a coalition of black Florida Bar leaders and black and white political insiders. Broward Mayor Dale Holness was an early backer. Retired Florida Supreme Court Justice Peggy Quince conducted Pryor’s swearing-in ceremony.
Some members of Pryor’s transition team, reported by Broward Beat, illustrate the gamut: Retired Judge Ilona Holmes is a co-chair; Stephanie Toothaker is a real estate lawyer and lobbyist; Chuck Morton was an early Satz hire who rose to longtime head of the homicide trial unit; Katrina Rodriguez of the Kelley Uustal law firm, where Pryor worked briefly on a community safety campaign, represents the Broward County Hispanic Bar Association.
A skeptic might ask, what does he owe them? Will he truly challenge the local establishment by realizing his most iconoclastic ideas?
“I can’t look into a man’s soul, but I can tell you he’s gonna be someone that’s gonna reform the system,” said Davis, the onetime Satz gadfly.
Pryor said he has the will, all he needs is time to find his way.
“Let me get to work and prove I can do it the right way,” he said. “I think you can initiate these reforms while maintaining safer communities.”
“I can’t just listen to my brothers and sisters in the black community, I have to listen to what you call the downtown crowd,” he said. “We are all somehow connected and you need to get input from everyone.”