While Jarred Harrell pleaded guilty Friday to murdering 7-year-old Somer Thompson and was sentenced to life in prison without parole, the question raised for prosecutors was, why didn't they seek the death penalty against him.
According to a plea agreement, Harrell admitted that he confined the Orange Park girl against her will, sexually assaulted her, lewdly touched her in her private areas and strangled her. He admitted that shortly after killing Somer, he put her body in a container and drove to the area behind Beauty and the Beef in Fleming Island, then put the container in a commercial Dumpster.
At a news conference after the court hearing, State Attorney Angela Corey and others talked about why prosecutors accepted the plea deal rather than pushing for trial.
Corey said prosecutors stood ready to try the case, but when defense attorneys came to them saying Harrell was willing to enter a guilty plea and receive consecutive life sentences, prosecutors took weeks speaking with the Clay County Sheriff's Office and with Diena Thompson, Somer's mother, in making the decision to accept the plea.
"Part of being tough on crime is being smart on crime. This was the right decision," Corey said. "For these specific facts and circumstances, for a man charged with this many counts to come forward this early in the proceedings, before motions to suppress, before depositions of key witnesses, to say, 'I want to admit my guilty. Will you waive the death penalty?' made it not just tough justice, but smart justice."
Corey said Thompson was fully on board with the decision.
"Once Diena understood that it was consecutive life and that he'd never, ever, ever walk out of prison and that she'd never have to step back in a courtroom or put her children through the details of this gruesome crime, she was very content," Corey said.
Clay County Sheriff Rick Beseler thanked Team Somer, including members of the FBI, NCIS, U.S. Marshals Service, Florida Department of Law Enforcement, for their work on the case, which helped lead to the plea.
"You did a world class investigation on this case, bringing little Somer's body home so that her mother and family could bury her, finding the perpetrator that committed this heinous crime and bringing him to justice today, finally, all is because of the Team Somer and the work that they did," Beseler said. "The work you did building a strong case put us in a very, very strong position of strength that caused the defense to come forward and approach the state and ask for the ability to enter into a plea today."
Beseler said there was no frustration on Harrell not getting the death penalty because a death penalty case would have meant appeals "ad infinitum."
"What happens is, for years and years that goes on, and the defendant is the focus of all of those appeals," Beseler said. "Today, that defendant is no longer going to be able to make any appeals based on his plea, and we can concentrate on Somer and her memory rather than dealing with endless appeals. He is going to die in prison. This is a death sentence, as the judge said."
Beseler said going to trial brings a risk of allowing the person presumed guilty to go free.
"This puts the control in the hands of law enforcement, it puts the control in the hands of the state attorney's office and law enforcement to make sure that no child ever gets hurt again," Beseler said. "We made sure today that Jarred Harrell will never, ever get an opportunity to hurt another child."
"Today was not a day of perfect justice, but it was certainly a day of sure justice," Corey said.
Channel 4 Crime Analyst Ken Jefferson said Harrell will now have to watch his back for the rest of his life.
"He's a young man. We'll have to see how long he can survive in prison," said Jefferson.
Jefferson added that he can forget about having any freedom.
"It's going to be totally miserable for him. He's used to freedom. He's used to getting what he wants, eating when he wants to, go wherever he pleases," said Jefferson. "That ceases totally. He can't do anything on his own. He now becomes the puppet of the state."
Jefferson also said that his crime of sexual abuse on a child will not be treated lightly by Harrell's fellow inmates.
"Even though they're hardened criminals in the prison system, they don't take kindly to someone coming in who's abused a child, particularly abused and murdered her," said Jefferson.