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State Attorney Norm Wolfinger dies

Wolfinger served seven terms as state attorney for 18th Judicial Circuit Court

Norm Wolfinger  [Photo: Craig Bailey/Florida Today]
Norm Wolfinger [Photo: Craig Bailey/Florida Today]

Former State Attorney Norm Wolfinger, who for three decades oversaw prosecution of some of Brevard County's most notorious criminal cases, died late Tuesday from an undisclosed illness. He was 70.

"He was a tremendous man," said Senior Brevard County Circuit Judge John Dean Moxley, a longtime friend and colleague. "He reached out to everybody. He was a good administrator and he took care of his people. He was also at the forefront of victim's awareness. He did that before it became fashionable."

News 6 partner Florida Today said news of Wofinger's death spread quickly in Brevard's legal and law enforcement community. Brevard County Sheriff Wayne Ivey called Wolfinger "a champion" of the criminal justice community. He was known as an advocate for tough changes in Florida's child sexual predator laws and Wolfinger partnered with federal prosecutors to tackle gun crime

"It's a sad morning. He was a great guy and an incredible prosecutor," Ivey said. "His legacy will go on forever."

Wolfinger served seven terms as state attorney for the Eighteenth Judicial Circuit Court, covering a population of nearly 1 million people across Brevard and Seminole County and was responsible for about 55,000 prosecutions annually by the time he decided not to run for reelection in 2012.

His story is one of a young man who overcame difficulties to pursue a career as an attorney.

Wolfinger earned a reputation as a tough lawyer dedicated to representing the victims of crime. He became state attorney in 1985 and within two years was faced with guiding the prosecution of William Cruse, the 60-year-old librarian who went on a shooting spree in Palm Bay, killing two police officers and four others in a standoff that made international news.

His time in office was not without controversy. Some critics called the state attorney’s office heavy-handed, but Wolfinger faced the criticism.

One case that garnered scrutiny involved William Dillon who spent 27 years in a state prison for a 1981 murder until a DNA test  exonerated him.  Wolfinger’s office fought calls for such testing in a  protracted legal battle that drew stinging criticism from advocacy groups like the Innocence Project.

In 2012, Wolfinger found himself again in the national spotlight with his office’s handling of the controversial shooting death of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin in nearby Sanford. Thousands converged on the small town, including ministers and activists from Brevard County, to challenge the state’s handling of the case involving shooter George Zimmerman’s assertions that he was acting in self-defense after confronting the teen.

Wolfinger later recused himself from the case as protests grew. In response to News 6 Partner Florida Today questions, Wolfinger discussed his handling of difficult cases, saying that being fair and just remained a priority during his tenure.

“First, tough decisions are rarely made in times of calm waters,” he said. “People’s opinions will be running every which way. That is why I do not allow myself to lose my wits about me, particularly when others appear to be losing their balance. I have had the opportunity to work on many tough cases, always giving thoughtful and thorough consideration to all the facts and circumstances, ideas and possibilities, including those offered by case critics, before reaching what I believe is a just and fair decision.”

A Republican, Wolfinger was elected state attorney in 1984 when he defeated ​Douglas Cheshire at the polls. He was re-elected without opposition in 1988, won re-election in 1992 after taking 70 percent of the Republican primary vote, and was re-elected without opposition until retirement. He served seven full terms.

Wolfinger created Operation Cease-Fire, a gun violence prevention program featuring a Rap Against Violence contest. U.S. Attorney General Alberto Gonzales honored Wolfinger and the program during a 2006 conference in Denver.

In 2007, the Disabled American Veterans presented Wolfinger with the National Commander's Award as the Outstanding Disabled American Veteran of the Year during the organization's national convention in New Orleans. The award, more than others, affected Wolfinger, colleagues would later say.

He spent 13 years chairing the Brevard Schools Foundation's Take Stock in Children Leadership Council, which offers mentoring and college scholarships for at-risk middle and high school students. He was also a founding member of the Children's Advocacy Center of Brevard, which helps investigate child abuse and supports young victims.

Honoring those humanitarian efforts, the National Association of Social Workers named Wolfinger the 2007 Florida Elected Official of the Year.

He was also a member of Vietnam and All Veterans of Brevard and DAV Post 109 in Titusville.