JACKSONVILLE – A new report released Aug. 23 by a Harvard Law group contends that Duval County is among the country’s leaders in death sentences and it, along with the other counties, is “plagued by prosecutorial misconduct, bad lawyers and racial bias.”

The Harvard Law School’s group Fair Punishment Project’s (FPP) website states the group “uses legal research and educational initiatives to ensure that the U.S. justice system is fair and accountable.”

The FPP report states that “Duval County is one of a group of ‘outlier’ counties, where the death penalty is used more than anywhere else in the country.”

FPP said Duval County only makes up 5 percent of Florida’s population yet produces 25 percent of its death penalty sentences.

“Of the death sentences that the Florida Supreme Court has reviewed from Duval County since 2006, one in every six cases involved a finding of inappropriate behavior, misuse of discretion or prosecutorial misconduct, including two recent death sentences tried by Bernie de la Rionda that the Florida Supreme Court vacated due to their excessive harshness,” FPP’s report maintains.

According to the U.S. Census bureau as of 2015, 61.8 percent of Duval residents are white and 30.1 percent are black or African-American. FPP reported that 87 percent of the death penalty sentences are handed down to black or African-American defendants, suggesting racial bias in Duval County’s sentencing. In addition to racial bias, FPP argues defendants with mental illness or learning disabilities have been unfairly sentenced.

In one case cited by FPP’s report, a trial judge found that a defendant, Thomas Brown, was under the "influence of extreme mental or emotional disturbance at the time he committed the murder." It noted that Angela Corey, the current state attorney who just lost her bid for re-election in the recent primary election, refused the man’s offer to plead guilty and accept a life without parole sentence. The jury voted seven to five to impose a death sentence.

In addition to the number of death penalty sentences, FPP’s report focuses on Corey’s aggressive conduct toward defendants, stating in its report: “Corey once threatened a physically and sexually abused 12-year-old boy with a life sentence for a murder charge she brought in adult court. It also reports that Corey sent Marissa Alexander, a woman with no criminal history, to jail for 20 years for firing a warning shot at her abusive husband.”

Of the cases that the Florida Supreme Court decided on direct appeal since 2006, 1 in 5 people sentenced to death had not yet reached their 21st birthday, and 48 percent were age 25 and younger.

FPP argues the results of its investigation supports that overzealous prosecution, racial bias, inadequate defense, and excessive punishment are contributing factors to Duval’s higher than average death sentencing rate, pointing out that, “the death sentencing rate in Duval County per 100 homicides is more than 40 percent higher than in the rest of the state.”

Duval County has had no capital exonerations as of yet. However, FPP’s report states that “Since 1976, there have been more than 150 individuals exonerated from death row. Nearly half of these exonerations have occurred since the start of 2000 with the development of more reliable scientific techniques. Exonerations are common in jurisdictions with overly aggressive prosecutors and inadequate defenders. Sixty-one percent of these exonerations involved defendants of color.”

“We hope the report will illuminate how most of the country has turned away from the death penalty and what the punishment looks like in practice for the places that continue to use it," Rob Smith, with the Fair Punishment Project, told the Florida Record. "We are concerned about the quality of justice. There was no broader point to the report than that.”

When asked about Melissa Nelson’s recent triumph over Corey in the Republican primary for state attorney and its impact on Florida’s death penalty rates, Smith said, “Nelson has a difficult job on her hands if she wins; it’s important to understand this isn’t a progressive or conservative issue. If she chooses to stop the death penalty, she would be in line with the vast majority of district attorneys and juries; they aren’t returning death sentences.”

Smith added that Duval County faces a lot of issues and rebuilding trust in the community. Nelson would be showing the state’s willingness to reinvest in the county by not carrying out very expensive capital prosecutions that do so much damage to the community, especially communities of color who have such distrust for the death penalty. Smith said that if Nelson wins and chooses not to pursue the death penalty, it would help address what victims truly want and need, which he believes is public safety.

“It’s a move that would build a lot of respect with communities within Florida that felt isolated by Corey’s office,” Smith said. “A politically smart move.”

“Most victims want to make sure whatever happened to them doesn’t happen to their loved ones," Smith said. "The Deterrence Theory states it’s the certainty of a sentence, not the severity that will deter potential offenders. Florida could spend the money saved on expensive death penalty trials to close unsolved cases.

“Oftentimes, district attorneys will say they are requesting the death penalty in the name of the victims, and I don’t think there is a lot of truth to that. I think it’s a sense of Old Testament justice crusading for the victim. It [the death penalty] ends up minimizing the humanity of the victim and offender. They become actors in a play. The people who commit these crimes are often the most broken and vulnerable. Maybe we could have stepped in along the way and prevented it [crimes] with treatment.”

Smith said Nelson winning the bid over Corey isn’t what will change the county’s problems.

“If I were a member of the community in Jacksonville and Bernie de la Rionda was prosecuting capital cases or serious crimes, it wouldn’t give me a lot of confidence that Ms. Nelson wants to bring change to the 4th Judicial Circuit, given Bernie’s record,” Smith said.

He said he believes if Nelson wins, she will need to change people at the top who have shown they are unable to make sound decisions that involve a person’s life or death.

“What gives me confidence is Duval won’t let up; if Nelson wins she will be under scrutiny to make changes," Smith said. "Any person in that position is deserving of that scrutiny. At the end of the day, it’s her name on the door and she’s accountable.”

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Organizations in this Story

Florida Supreme Court
500 South Duval Street
Tallahassee, FL 32399

Harvard Law School
Harvard Law School, Cambridge, MA, United States
Cambridge, MA 02138

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