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Silhouettes profiles Gretchen Cothron

Gretchen Cothron
Photo by Dave Decker

By Tiffany Razzano
Published Sept. 11, 2020

Even as a child growing up in Tampa and Pasco County, Gretchen Cothron was naturally drawn to activism. By the time she was a teenager, she joined local chapters of ACLU (American Civil Liberties Union), ACT UP (AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power) and NOW (National Organization for Women). “I don’t know why, but I’ve always been a fighter for the underdog,” she said. “Any sort of injustice has always set me off, ever since I was young.”
Decades later, this early passion for justice continues to inform her work in the community. Among her various roles, she’s a well-known human, civil rights and criminal defense attorney currently representing several Black Lives Matter protestors. She’s also the new president of the ACLU’s Greater Tampa chapter and served as a member of Mayor Jane Castor’s Community Task Force on Policing. “Fighting for justice has always been my biggest passion,” she said.
In her youth, she was equally passionate about the arts, though. Specifically, she was an actor, and after high school, she spent her early twenties focusing on this path. She studied at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts in New York and worked for several years as an actress and model.
During this period, Cothron was hired as a spokesmodel for Reebok and traveled the United States and Canada with the Harlem Globetrotters hosting their shows for three years. “That was a lot of fun. I was the only woman with about 30 or 40 men and the majority of us were all in our twenties. It was just kind of a rolling party,” she said. “I look back and I wish that we had gone to see the Grand Canyon and things like that instead of going to night clubs and acting like twentysomethings, but it was so much fun.”
By the time she hit her mid-twenties, though, she realized she was aging out of the modeling industry. “I realized I needed to do something that used my intellect as opposed to my looks,” she said.
She returned home to the Tampa Bay area and enrolled in St. Petersburg College’s new forensic science program. “It was the only one in Central Florida at the time,” she said. “I just jumped right into it.”
It was an easy choice, she added. As a child, she loved horror movies and the thought of solving gruesome crimes. “I’d act them out at home,” she said. “While my siblings were playing video games, I was running around the woods of Pasco pretending to be chased by zombies and serial killers.”
Forensic science seemed like the perfect major for her, and her goal, initially, was to become a crime scene investigator. “Maybe even go towards the FBI, like Clarice Starling (from ‘Silence of the Lambs,’)” she said.
Then, while writing a research paper, she learned about Jerry Townsend and Frank Lee Smith, two South Florida men who were convicted for rapes and murders they didn’t commit. The Innocence Project worked to overturn these convictions and prove their innocence. For Smith, it was too late. He died of cancer while on death row months before the DNA evidence that ultimately exonerated him came back.
Townsend didn’t fare much better, Cothron said. He was “mentally slow” with a low IQ. Police tricked him into confessing to crimes he didn’t commit by offering him sandwiches and sodas. When he was exonerated, he was unable to care for himself and was sent to live in a psychiatric facility.
“Their stories broke my heart,” she said. This began several years of volunteering with the Innocence Project to review cases from around the country.
When she transferred to the University of Tampa to earn a bachelor’s degree in criminology, she met Seth Miller with the Innocence Project of Florida, as well as Alan Crotzer, whose rape and murder conviction in Tampa was later overturned by DNA evidence. She launched a forensic consultation nonprofit to help those wrongfully convicted of crimes.
She shifted gears on her career plans, thinking she’d have more of an impact using her forensic skills as a criminal defense attorney rather than in law enforcement. “I thought it was the best way I could help,” she said. “I wanted to try to stop wrongful convictions before they happen.”
She began writing letters to criminal defense attorneys she admired seeking opportunities for legal experience. This included Rochelle Reback, who hired Cothron as a paralegal and invited her to sit on a legal panel for the ACLU.
She attended the University of Miami School of Law. “Out of Florida law schools, it’s the best one if you want to be a criminal defense attorney,” she said. “Because of the city of Miami, its population, how many cases they have, and the opportunities down there to really develop myself as a criminal defense attorney.” UM also offered her a partial scholarship to launch an Innocence Project Clinic on campus for law students.
In 2013, after earning her law degree and passing the bar, she returned to Tampa. She was hired to work for the public defender. She spent four years working in Tampa and Plant City before transferring to Dade City.
At first, the job was everything she had hoped it would be. She was there to assist vulnerable people at their lowest points. But, she eventually became overwhelmed by the volume of cases. “I loved the work and I learned so much there, however, the caseload is so exorbitant,” Cothron said. “I started to get a cynical feeling that there was no way to stop wrongful convictions. I would see them happen in front of me.”
Sometimes, she could appeal a case and get it overturned down the road, but even that didn’t happen as frequently as she would have liked. “I felt like justice wasn’t happening and I was overwhelmed,” she said. When she left in 2018, she had more than 300 cases assigned to her.
She was hired to teach the course “Culture, Race and Crime” at the University of South Florida. Adjunct teaching was a nice change of pace for her. “It was an opportunity to get off the gerbil wheel and jump out of the public defender’s office,” she said.
While at USF, she discovered she enjoyed teaching. She’d had some experience in law school teaching seminars and workshops.
Needing more of a break and wanting to continue exploring her newfound love of teaching, Cothron was hired to teach English overseas. Already interested in Thai Buddhism, she decided to teach kindergarten and first grade in Thailand. She taught them all subjects in English. “It’s very different from what I’d done, but also very similar,” she said. “As an attorney, a lot of what I do is tell people, ‘No, you can’t do that’ or ‘Why did you do that? Why did you think that was a good idea?’ So, kindergarten wasn’t that much different.”
Ahead of an election in Thailand and uncertain about the political climate there, she opted to return to Tampa after a year abroad. “Now I’m kind of regretting it,” she said. “Thailand has fewer cases of COVID than Hillsborough County.”
Upon her return, friends attempted to recruit her to work for their firms. “But I’m just not ready to get back on the hamster wheel,” she said. “I don’t want to kill myself for work.”
Despite turning down positions, it’s not like Cothron hasn’t been busy. In fact, she launched her own firm, Gretchen Cothron Law & Forensics. “I’m still doing criminal defense. That’s my base knowledge,” she said. “I’m moving more into civil disputes. That’s when money is at stake and not somebody’s livelihood. It’s not as intense to me as criminal defense law is.”
She’s also active in the Tampa community. While in Thailand, she continued her involvement with the ACLU’s Greater Tampa chapter and “jumped back into it” when she returned to Florida. In March, she was appointed interim president and is set to be named president at the upcoming Sept. 26 general election, as she’s running unopposed. “I love it, it’s very time consuming and it’s all volunteer work,” she said. “I didn’t expect to still be doing this.”
Between the COVID-19 pandemic and Black Lives Matter protests, her work with the ACLU has turned into practically a full-time job.
She also hopes that people get a better understanding of what the organization is. “People are confused, but it’s a nonpartisan organization that sues the government for civil liberties violations,” Cothron said. “I get angry people emailing me that I’m ‘a leftist liberal ACLU person.’ But they don’t even know what the ACLU is.”
She encourages Tampa residents to learn more about the organization on Facebook at www.facebook.com/groups/aclufltampa.
Personally, she’s also offering pro bono representation to injured and arrested activists Jae Passmore and Jason Stewart Flores. Flores was arrested by Tampa Police Department during a Hyde Park protest after being hit on June 27 by a car whose driver drove through a crowd of protestors at an intersection.
Passmore was also injured being hit by a car a week earlier. Last month, she was also arrested by Tampa police after leaving a protest. The arrest landed her in the hospital.
Working with civil rights attorney Ben Crump, Cothron said they recently got the charges dropped for Passmore. Now, they’ve turned their efforts to “getting justice” for her after how she was treated by TPD during her August arrest. The case has been handed over to the state attorney’s office for investigation. “We are hopeful that Jae will get justice through that,” she said.
They’re hoping that charges will eventually be dropped for Flores, too. She’s also launched a GoFundMe page to assist both protestors with their hospital bills. This fundraiser can be found at https://www.gofundme.com/f/support-jae-and-stu.
In the wake of Black Lives Matter and protests of police brutality and over-policing in the area, Cothron was invited to sit on Mayor Jane Castor’s Community Task Force on Policing. The goal was to facilitate community conversations about how to improve the work done by the Tampa Police Department. Ultimately, she’s “disappointed” by the task force and thinks it might have been more of a “PR stunt” than anything else. “I feel like it was almost a pre-planned set-up,” she said. “The report that was issued did not reflect what was being said in meetings.”
She and others would speak up about racism and other policing issues they’d personally witnessed our experienced. Then, TPD representatives at these meetings would “deny or say, ‘that doesn’t happen’ or, ‘oh, no, we fixed that problem,’” she said. “I didn’t feel the meetings were productive.”
She added, “Tampa’s just been crazy. I knew that we had factions of racism in our county, in our city. I knew that we had major issues with the police. I was a public defender during ‘biking while Black’ and that was at a time when I was also representing juveniles. So, I saw what was being upheld. Almost all my juvenile clients were Black male teens and I saw how I was treated back then. To think five years later after the (U.S. Department of Justice) investigation Tampa police are still policing in such an aggressive manner and over-policing poor communities, it saddens me that there hasn’t been progress.”
She’s also part of a task force organized by the local chapter of the NAACP. This one, which features police chiefs from throughout the county, including Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office, Plant City Police Department, Temple Terrace Police Department and the USF Police Department, has been more productive, she said. Though, the Tampa Police Department and the Tampa Police Benevolent Association didn’t show up at the group’s most recent meeting, she adds.
Still, this NAACP task force is making headway in creating policies for transparency and accountability in police departments. “If an officer sees another officer acting badly, it’s their duty to interact and report that officer,” she said. “We need more accountability.”
Since this group formed, they’ve already seen Hillsborough Sheriff Chad Chronister fire an officer for excessive force and investigate another for inappropriate posts on social media. “I think some local agencies are taking good steps forward,” Cothron said.
As for the Tampa Police Department, “all we can do is keep applying pressure,” she said. “No one is happy right now. The community isn’t happy, officers aren’t happy right now with the department or the mayor, and citizens aren’t happy. Obviously, something needs to be done. Someone needs to be accountable and so far, the leadership seems to be whitewashing over the problems instead of actually addressing the problems.”

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