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Sitting behind the podium of a Florida courtroom, Richard Mantei commanded the stage with the same dramatic prowess as a professional thespian.
He tilted his head closer to the jury, raised his eyebrows in an expression of mockery, and craftily paced his speech with the poise of someone who has navigated the judicial system for 18 years.
“There are two people involved here: One of them is dead and one of them is a liar,” Mr. Mantei said earlier this month, concluding his rebuttal of a motion to acquit the most well-known defendant that he had ever prosecuted in his lengthy career.
Just a few feet away, sitting on a bench at the Seminole County Courthouse, was George Zimmerman, the man who had been charged in the fatal shooting of Trayvon Martin in 2012.
Mr. Mantei, 42, an assistant state attorney in Florida who is formerly of Monroe County in southeast Michigan, was appointed to the prosecution team representing the state of Florida in the case that ended with Mr. Zimmerman’s acquittal, triggering a public uproar over racial justice, gun regulations, and self-defense.
For Mr. Mantei, the trial that has captured the attention of the nation is just the pinnacle of an illustrious career that began with a realization that he had as an undergraduate at the University of Toledo.
Born in Toledo in 1970, Mr. Mantei was raised in Ida, Mich., and graduated in 1988 from the former Monroe Catholic Central school. He then entered college with the intention of studying pharmacy. It wasn’t until the end of his freshman year that he decided to leave microscopes and petri dishes behind. He never really had an “a-ha” moment, but he slowly found himself drawn to “more reading-oriented and debate-oriented” courses, he said.
He eventually opted to pursue a dual degree in political science and philosophy, hoping to enter law school after graduation — a choice that did not surprise his parents.
“I never understood why he wanted to go into pharmacy in the first place,” said his father, Frank Mantei, 69, a retired Ida High School chemistry teacher who lives in Monroe. “From a very young age, he was always verbally combative and had a phenomenal memory; he always liked big arguments and big discussions.”
The oldest of four sons, Mr. Mantei used his rhetorical superiority to “get [his younger siblings] out of trouble,” his brother, Jeremy, recalled.
“For Richard to end up where he is today, it’s no surprise. He was always intellectually astute, even as a kid,” his brother said.
In 1992, Mr. Mantei moved to Ann Arbor to study at the University of Michigan Law School and completed his studies three years later.
After practicing law in Akron, he moved to Jacksonville in 1997, where he has been serving as an assistant state attorney for the 4th Judicial Circuit Court since October, 2000. He is the director of the Special Prosecution Unit, which handles public corruption cases, white-collar crimes, and other complex litigation.
“I have prosecuted everything from police officers to capital murders,” Mr. Mantei told The Blade after the Zimmerman trial was resolved, noting that prosecutors need to have “a good heart and tough skin” to fulfill their duties.
“As a prosecutor, you have to make tough decisions and most of your decisions are going to make somebody unhappy,” he said.
But there’s another quality that has helped the attorney in his career — his father calls it “a sense of the dramatic,” a talent that Mr. Mantei discovered when he was a child.
In fifth grade, Mr. Mantei said he took the stage in an elementary school production of A Christmas Carol, playing the role of Tiny Tim in the popular novella by Charles Dickens. Later, Mr. Mantei honed his acting skills by performing in several musicals for his high school's drama club — an experience that well prepared him to enter the world of legal litigation and trials.
Mr. Mantei’s name rose to prominence in numerous high-profile murder cases. For instance, in February, 2011, he was the prosecutor in a trial against Alexandra Tobias, a mother who was sentenced to 50 years in prison for shaking her baby to death.
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But it was only during the Zimmerman trial that Mr. Mantei delivered his first nationally televised performance.
Mr. Mantei and his three colleagues — special prosecutor Angela Corey, lead prosecutor Bernie de la Rionda, and John Guy — portrayed Mr. Zimmerman, who is Hispanic, as a “wannabe cop” who wrongly profiled an unarmed 17-year-old African-American as a criminal, followed him with a gun, and shot him in a gated community in Sanford, Fla.
“Richard never said anything, but I could tell from the tone of his voice on the phone that he was under a lot of pressure,” Mr. Mantei’s father said.
After three weeks of testimony and heated debate, the trial ended on July 13 with a jury of six women acquitting Mr. Zimmerman of all charges.
Mr. Mantei declined to comment further on the verdict, citing personal concerns for his loved ones. But at a news conference following the jury's decision, he spoke respectfully of the family of the dead teenager.
“I appreciate the way that they have handled this matter,” Mr. Mantei said. “They have been dignified, they have shown class, they have kept their pain in check when they needed to, they have grieved when they needed to.”
After Mr. Zimmerman’s acquittal, Mr. Mantei is transitioning back into his life in Jacksonville, where he lives with his wife and two children.
Initially moving to Florida, he admitted, was a difficult decision as he “didn’t know a soul down there;” but, he tries to visit his hometown in Michigan as often as possible — or, at least, whenever he is not performing within the wood-paneled walls of a Florida courtroom.
“I try to go back every now and then: Michigan is a really wonderful place, and it will always be home to me,” he said.
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