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TAMPA, Fla. – State Attorney Andrew Warren was waiting for a grand jury to issue indictments in two rape and murder cases he had been working on for three years when he glanced down at his phone and saw an email from an attorney for Gov. Ron DeSantis.
It said he was suspended from his job.
Stunned, Warren quickly went to his office to consult with his staff. Not long after, there was a knock at the door. An armed major from the county sheriff’s office and a man in a suit from the governor’s office carrying a copy of DeSantis’ executive order suspending him were looking for him.
“He said, essentially, ‘The governor has suspended you and you need to leave the office now,'” Warren, a Democrat, recalled of DeSantis’ aide. “So within maybe seven minutes from getting the email, I was outside, on the street. The major offered me a ride home because they took my car.”
The dramatic ouster has alarmed many in Florida, who say DeSantis – widely considered a potential 2024 presidential candidate – usurped the will of the voters by removing a twice-elected local official who disagreed with him politically. Warren had initiated police reforms unpopular with some local law enforcement officers, and in the past year signed two statements pledging not to use his office to “criminalize” health care, including prosecuting women who get abortions and people seeking gender-affirming medical treatments.
In announcing the suspension, DeSantis excoriated Warren for being a “woke” prosecutor more interested in social justice than in enforcing the law. He warned of a “pathogen” spreading in U.S. cities – progressive prosecutors trying to reduce incarceration rates they see as overly punitive and that disproportionately impact people of color. He said prosecutors like Warren have caused “catastrophic results” in other states.
“We are not going to let that get a foothold here in the state of Florida,” DeSantis said a news conference in Tampa, while across town Warren was being physically ejected from his office. The governor was flanked by more than a dozen officers who hailed the move to oust Warren.
The clash comes as political parties pay more attention to state attorney elections than they have in the past and as prosecutors around the country are now faced with a slate of new laws restricting or outright banning abortion care after the fall of Roe v. Wade. For Warren, who left a job as a federal prosecutor in Washington, D.C., to run for office in his home state, the suspension was the latest in a series of dust-ups with the governor. He said he was not planning to ignore the law, only that he planned to exercise prosecutorial discretion.
“My job is about anything I can do to make our city safer and our system more fair,” he said. “That is much broader in the terms of the spectrum of criminal justice.”
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The day he lost his job was supposed to be a day of triumph for Warren, one of the highlights of his six years in office.
Four years earlier, he had launched a Conviction Review Unit to examine innocence claims. One of those claims came from Robert DuBoise. He’d served 37 years behind bars after being convicted in the rape and murder of 19-year-old Barbara Grams in 1983. But prosecutors had built their case on problematic bite-mark evidence and a jailhouse informant. A fresh look at the crime found DNA evidence that instead linked two other men to the crime.
Not only did the new probe conclude that Abron Scott and Amos Earl Robinson were responsible for Grams’ death; further investigation also tied them to the rape and murder of Linda Lansen, 41, who was killed around the same time. Lansen’s case had gone cold for nearly four decades. Warren was going to announce that a grand jury had indicted the men in both murders.
He invited family members of the victims, as well as several local law enforcement officers who had helped solve the cases. He sent out a press release for media to join him at the state attorney’s building in Tampa. Instead, after his suspension, he held a briefing at a downtown office building.
“The governor’s political circus potentially jeopardized two three-year old cold case investigations into serial rapists and murderers from 39 years ago,” he said. “That was my focus. … I was worried that they were going to disband the grand jury. In the back of my mind was the promise I made to those families, and that was my focus.”
Warren grew up in Gainesville, Fla., the son of a university professor turned real estate developer. After graduating from Columbia University law school, he served as a federal district court clerk in San Francisco. Later he went on to work as a federal prosecutor with the U.S. Department of Justice focusing on financial fraud.
In 2016 he returned to Florida from D.C. to take on a longtime Republican prosecutor for the state attorney’s office in one of the state’s most populous counties. During the campaign, he promised to focus on violent crimes and send low-level offenders into diversion programs instead of jail.
“When I ran in 2016 I wanted to change the criminal justice system, to improve it, to revolutionize it,” he said, sitting in the living room of his Tampa home on a recent morning.
He put that philosophy into action during the summer of 2020, when protests over the murder of George Floyd by police officers erupted across the country, including in Tampa. Warren declined to press charges against 67 people who had been arrested for unlawful assembly – angering local law enforcement officials.
“There were a lot of peaceful protests, and there was a night of violent rioting,” Warren said. “We prosecuted 150 people for felonies. We prosecuted the people who we had evidence were actually committing crimes. We didn’t prosecute the people where there was no evidence besides the fact that they were fully protesting. It was pretty simple.”
Warren has publicly clashed with DeSantis before. He criticized an “anti-riot” law that DeSantis signed in 2021 stiffening penalties for demonstrators in the aftermath of the 2020 protests, saying it “tears a couple of corners off the Constitution.” After the U.S. Supreme Court overturned Roe vs. Wade in June, Warren joined dozens of prosecutors from around the country in signing a pledge to “decline to use our offices’ resources to criminalize reproductive health decisions.”
A year earlier, he signed a similar statement regarding gender-affirming care.
Warren called the pledges “value statements” that addressed prosecutorial discretion, and not promises to ignore the law. Florida recently instituted a 15-week abortion ban, and while the state will soon deny Medicaid coverage for transgender-related surgeries and medication, there is no law forbidding such treatments.
“So if a doctor at Tampa General Hospital performs an abortion at 24 weeks and there’s a question of, ‘Is it 23 weeks and six days, or 24 weeks and one day,’ that’s a different case than a back-alley abortion performed at 35 weeks,” Warren said, explaining that he’d pursue charges in the latter. “That’s reckless and negligent.”
He said “there have been occasions where I’m getting yelled at from far left, and I’m getting yelled at by the far right. To me that demonstrates that I’m doing the right thing.”
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Warren handily won his re-election 2020 – but not everyone was happy with his approach to the law.
In his executive order suspending Warren, DeSantis listed examples of what he called Warren’s “fundamentally flawed and lawless understanding of his duties.” One of those was Warren’s decision not prosecute people on bicycles who are stopped by police for resisting arrest without violence. A report by the U.S. Department of Justice after an investigation by the Tampa Bay Times found that 80% of the thousands of biking tickets issued by Tampa police were given to Black people, a practice local residents criticized as “biking while Black.”
“We need our prosecutor to prosecute crime – the same as we enforce crime,” Hillsborough County Sheriff Chad Chronister told a local television station after Warren’s suspension.
DeSantis said he decided to suspend Warren after he ordered his staff to find any examples in Florida of prosecutors who “take it upon themselves” to decide which laws to enforce. Law enforcement officers and district attorneys routinely utilize prosecutorial discretion to decide which crimes to focus their attention on.
But DeSantis was touching on a growing angst over prosecutors seen as light on crime at a time when homicides have risen in many cities, including Tampa.
“We are going to make sure that our laws are enforced and that no individual prosecutor puts himself above the law,” DeSantis said. “And I can tell you, the states and the localities that have allowed this to happen, they are ruing the day.”
Alissa Marque Heydari, deputy director of the Institute for Innovation in Prosecution at John Jay College New York City, said there has been an uptick in state legislators and governors attacking prosecutors who are reform-minded. In San Francisco, former District Attorney Chesa Boudin lost a recall election after venture capitalists, doctors, lawyers, and estate developers raised millions to boot him from office.
“But law enforcement is local – it’s up to the community to prioritize how they want the laws enforced,” she said. “If Andrew Warren said he didn’t want to prosecute certain types of crimes and the community was upset about that, it was up to them to vote him out.”
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For DeSantis critics, Warren’s suspension is a troubling sign of abuse of power from a governor whose administration routinely employs hostile tactics to silence opponents. The suspension isn’t final until the state Senate approves it, but the Republican-majority chamber is all but certain to usher it through.
“This is something that Putin or Castro or Maduro would do,” said U.S. Rep. Kathy Castor, a Democrat who has represented parts of the Tampa Bay area in Congress for 15 years. “People in Hillsborough are outraged.”
Peter Bergerson, a political science professor at Florida Gulf Coast University, concurred, describing it as a decision with “heavy overtones of political, election-year issues.”
“It sounds like more of an ideological decision, rather than one that’s based on actual poor performance or fraud,” he said.
Others have sprung to the governor’s defense, including local law enforcement leaders, Republican colleagues in the state legislature and others who say Warren’s approach was ultimately problematic.
Joseph Cillo, a former defense attorney and an assistant professor of criminal justice at Saint Leo University in Tampa, said he likes Warren and respects his right to free speech. But he said DeSantis was doing his job and also sending a message by removing Warren from office.
“You can have discretion on individual cases. There’s always prosecutorial discretion,” Cillo said. “But when you come out and say, these are one or two statutes that I believe are unconstitutional, that’s an individual opinion. And to say, ‘I’m just not going to prosecute these crimes,’ that’s an omission under Florida law.”
The suspension – and what followed – offer a window into DeSantis’ approach to the law, were he to pursue federal office. He appointed Susan Lopez to fill Warren’s position, a longtime assistant state attorney the governor had recently named a county judge. Warren may have had no warning that he was about to be fired by the governor, but Lopez said the governor called her days earlier to offer her the job.
Lopez is a member of the Federalist Society, a conservative group that advocates for an “originalist interpretation” of the Constitution. U.S. Supreme Court Justices Clarence Thomas, Samuel Alito, Brett Kavanaugh and Amy Coney Barrett are also members.
The new top prosecutor reversed many of Warren’s policies in her first days in office, including his policy to cut down on bike-rider prosecutions.
Warren, for his part, has assembled a team of lawyers to figure out his next step. He published a video message three days after his suspension, saying “I refuse to let this man trample on your freedoms to speak your mind, to make your own health care decisions, and to have your vote count.”
As he strategizes on a way to get his job back, Warren said he’s been buoyed by support from voters and friends.
“I’ve heard from people who told me they didn’t vote for me, and they don’t know if they’ll ever vote for me, but they support me on this,” he said. “They recognize how wrong this is.”
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