Polk County's Assistant State Attorney Paul Wallace and director of the homicide division for the Bartow-based 10th Judicial Circuit, has been named Prosecutor of the Year by the Florida Prosecuting Attorneys Association.
Assistant State Attorney Paul Wallace of Polk County, Fla. and director of the homicide division for the Bartow-based 10th Judicial Circuit, has been named Prosecutor of the Year by the Florida Prosecuting Attorneys Association.
The vote among Florida’s 20 elected state attorneys was unanimous, making Wallace the second Polk County prosecutor to receive the honor since it was first awarded in 1983. In 1990, the award was presented to the late John Aguero, who prosecuted dozens of murder cases with Wallace.
Wallace, 62, became a prosecutor shortly after graduating from Stetson Law School in 1978. He began his career handling misdemeanors, but was taking murder cases to trial by 1983. He’s remained in that division ever since.
The numbers illustrate his success, State Attorney Brian Haas told prosecutors when introducing Wallace at the association’s recent conference in Naples.
“During his career, Paul Wallace was tried 78 first-degree murder cases,” said Haas, whose circuit includes Polk, Highlands and Hardee counties. “Of those 78 first-degree murder trials, 73 were found guilty. And of those 73 guilty verdicts, nine defendants were sentenced to death.”
He said two more convicted murderers in which juries have recommended the death penalty — Michael Gordon and Cheyanne Jessie — are awaiting sentencing.
Arthur “Buddy” Jacobs, the association’s general counsel for nearly five decades, said the annual award, named for the late Gene Berry, represents more than the ability to prosecute cases.
“It represents the best of what we are and what we do,” he said. “It’s presented to a person who excels as a prosecutor, but also as a person. You have to be well-rounded to get that award — to contribute to your community. Paul was extraordinarily qualified for this.”
For three decades, Wallace has participated in annual mission trips through his church, Haas said, building churches, teaching educational programs and spreading the word of God in Central and South America and East Africa.
“Even while handling a heavy homicide caseload,” Haas told the group, “almost every year since that first trip, Paul has not missed a mission trip. When Paul’s children were young, he also brought them on the trips. He wanted his kids to know the meaning of helping others and, at the same time, to know how fortunate we are to live in the United States.”
In a recent interview, Jacobs discussed Wallace’s quiet demeanor when presenting cases to juries.
“He’s extraordinarily humble,” he said. “Jurors identify with and appreciate him. He’s all about the facts and not about any drama. He’s very persuasive because he’s a humble man. He does it that way because that’s who he is.”
Haas cautioned others not to be fooled by that demeanor.
“Don’t mistake Paul’s kindness as an indication that he’s not tough,” he said. “He’s as tough as they come when he needs to be.”
Wallace has retired from the State Attorney’s Office once already. He thought he’d presented his last closing argument in late 2015, but then he began consulting on other murder cases in the months that followed. And when Hope Pattey, the division’s director, was appointed to a judgeship a year ago, Haas turned to Wallace.
“I cannot tell you what a relief it was for me when Paul agreed to take that position,” he said.
Wallace said he plans to stay with the office into next year, but hopes to retire again soon.
This story originally published to theledger.com, and was shared to other Florida newspapers in the GateHouse Media network via the Florida Wire. The Florida Wire, which runs across digital, print and video platforms, curates and distributes Florida-focused stories. For more Florida stories, visit here, and to support local media throughout the state of Florida, consider subscribing to your local paper.