JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – After James Rhodes' public defender accused the state attorney's office of misconduct in her client's case, an assistant state attorney fired back Monday, calling the accusation a “veiled extortion attempt.”
Rhodes is accused of gunning down a Metro PCS clerk in 2013.
Assistant Public Defender Debra Billard sent a letter to the state attorney's office after a recent pretrial hearing in the case, accusing prosecutors of committing a felony by showing surveillance video of 20-year-old Shelby Farah's shooting death to her brother, Caleb Farah.
Assistant State Attorney Bernie de la Rionda denied the claim and countered the accusation with one of his own.
“Let me be perfectly clear, I've been doing this job for nearly 33 years and don't take kindly to your veiled extortion attempt,” he wrote in a letter to Billard. “It's not working. I didn't do anything illegal and based on the facts of the case, your client's criminal history and the law, the State Attorney's Office will continue to seek the death penalty in this case.”
Shelby's mother, Darlene Farah, has repeatedly asked the State Attorney's Office to agree to a plea deal with Rhodes and not seek the death penalty so the case will be over and her family can move on.
But her son, Caleb, testified at a pretrial hearing that he supports the death penalty against Rhodes, if he's convicted in Shelby's murder.
Rhodes' attorney said he only took that position after prosecutors showed him surveillance video of his sister's shooting death.
Billard asserted in her letter to prosecutors that regardless of whether Caleb Farah wanted to watch that video or not, the state attorney's office should not have allowed him to do so.
Billard said that because the video shows the killing of a person, Florida law states that only a surviving parent has authority to view the video if there is no surviving spouse and no written designation from the parent authorizing anyone else to view it.
Because Darlene Farah did not give written permission for Caleb to view the video, allowing him to see it violated the confidentiality of the video, Billard said.
According to Florida law, that's a felony, according to Billard.
“Frankly, I am disturbed to think that you would have considered violating a clearly written Florida Statute and, as a result, attempted to justify your desire to have Mr. Rhodes killed by citing the opinions of Caleb Farah,” Billard wrote. “I can think of no blow more foul than violating not only Florida law, but also the memory of Shelby Farah.”
De la Rionda fired back this week, accusing Billard of unprofessional behavior after her letter was leaked to News4Jax and other media outlets.
“I disagree with your comments about what happened in this case and your analysis of the statute in question,” de la Rionda wrote. “I didn't do anything criminally, ethically or morally wrong.”
He detailed why, according to his interpretation of the law, Billard's assessment is incorrect, saying requiring written permission to show such evidence to potential witnesses ahead of a trial “defies all logic and common sense.”
“I must assume that you are continuing these unwarranted and unsupported personal attacks solely to get more publicity for your anti-death penalty beliefs and to litigate this case in the media rather than in a court of law,” de la Rionda wrote.
State Attorney Angela Corey backed her prosecutor Tuesday.
“We're absolutely horrified by the fact that the public defender would not fight this battle in the courtroom where it belongs,” she said. “We thought that the last hearing was a clear signal from the judge that she wants the issues resolved in the courtroom. That's where we believe they should be resolved, and we are very disappointed that the public defender chose to send a letter that has false allegations about one of my prosecutors -- that they would choose to publicize that.”
Corey said the State Attorney’s Office plans to continue fighting the battle in court, adding that she believes the truth will prevail.
Rhodes' trial, which was set to begin May 2, has been pushed back because of new state legislation on the death penalty.
Judge Tatiana Salvador set Aug. 29 as the date for jury selection in the trial. The final pretrial date will be Aug. 22.
Earlier this month, Gov. Rick Scott signed into law a measure designed to fix the state's death penalty sentencing process after it was found unconstitutional by the U.S. Supreme Court.
The new law, which went into effect immediately, would require at least 10 jurors to recommend death for the penalty to be imposed.
Darlene Farah wrote an opinion piece for Time magazine on the death penalty, titled “My Daughter's Killer Should Not Get the Death Penalty.”
Cellphone store clerk killed in robbery
Rhodes is charged with first-degree murder in the killing of Shelby Farah during a robbery of a Brentwood cellphone store.
Police said that after several hours of questioning, Rhodes confessed.
Police said Farah was found dead after officers responded to a report of an armed robbery at the store on Main Street near 21st Street.
Police said Rhodes pointed a gun at the 20-year-old and demanded money. They said she cooperated and after she handed him the last bit of money, he fired four rounds, killing her.