|Florida's death chamber|
Dozens of homicide victims' families from across the country endorsed a letter Wednesday calling for the 4th Judicial Circuit State Attorney's Office to put a stop to the use of the death penalty in Duval County.
The letter, released by 2 national organizations that advocate for victims' families, blasted prosecutors for what it characterized as an overzealous pursuit of death sentences amid questions about the validity of Florida's death-penalty law.
It marks the latest salvo in a string of criticisms directed toward Jacksonville's criminal justice system. Duval County has come under national scrutiny following a blistering study from a Harvard Law group that concluded it led all Florida counties in death sentences despite having just 5 % of the state's population.
The letter also comes on the heels of the ouster of State Attorney Angela Corey, who was handily defeated by political newcomer Melissa Nelson in Tuesday's primary election.
Brian Hughes, Nelson's campaign spokesman, said it would be inappropriate to comment while Corey's still officially state attorney and since she hasn't reviewed the material. She previously said at a candidate forum that she would reserve the death penalty for only the most egregious cases.
Authors of the letter slammed the State Attorney's Office for not respecting the wishes of victims' families, specifically Darlene Farah, whose 20-year-old daughter Shelby was shot dead while complying with a robber at a Jacksonville Metro PCS store in 2013. Since then, Farah has been pleading for prosecutors to accept a guilty plea for life in prison and spare family the trial, lengthy appeal process and taxpayer expense.
Corey and her office have steadfastly declined to do so saying the brutality of the crime warranted death.
"Sadly, Duval County's use of the death penalty has too often caused further pain by forcing murder victims' families to endure a long, complex and error-prone legal process," the families wrote in the letter, which also was signed by Farah.
Of 3,000 counties nationwide, Duval is 1 of 16 that produced at least 5 death sentences from 2010 to 2015. In that same span, 1/4 of those who received the death penalty in Florida were sentenced in Duval County courtrooms. The county ranks No. 2 in the nation when it comes to imposing the death penalty, trailing only Maricopa County in Arizona.
Due to the uncertainty surrounding Florida's death-penalty law - which has been struck down twice as unconstitutional - it's the surviving families who pay the price when prosecutors decide to seek a death sentence, said Shari Silberstein, executive director for Equal Justice USA, which sent out the letter with Murder Victims' Families for Reconciliation.
State Attorney's Office spokeswoman Jackelyn Barnard said while the agency understands where the letter's authors are coming from, they do not speak for everyone.
"While we understand these 55 families, who are located across the country, have suffered greatly and are entitled to an opinion, these groups do not speak for the vast majority of victim family members we come in contact with who are in favor of the death penalty," the statement said. "In appropriate cases, a death-penalty notice is filed. A jury then determines if death is the appropriate sentence and the court decides whether a death sentence is imposed. As always, we will continue to follow the law and seek a death sentence in appropriate cases."
Rhodes' case, which initially ran into legal hurdles due to questions about whether he was fit to stand trial, has been placed on hold since the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that Florida's death-penalty procedures are invalid over the final decision being left in the hands of a judge, not a jury.
The state Legislature later overhauled those procedures, but the changes have since been met by legal challenges before the Florida Supreme Court.
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