New panel reviews facts before state attorney seeks death penalty

Melissa Nelson says panel was a promise during her 2016 campaign

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – Thursday's announcement that the state will seek the death penalty for Russell Tillis, the man accused of killing Joni Gunter and burying her dismembered remains in his booby-trapped yard, was a first since Melissa Nelson took over as 4th District state attorney.

The decision was made by Nelson after the case was before the newly formed Grand Jury Indictment Review Panel. It will look over potential death penalty cases and lay out the facts to make sure all sides are represented before Nelson makes the decision.

The facts in the Tillis case were enough for Nelson to decide to pursue the death penalty. 

The panel has nine members: five permanent and four rotating members of Nelson's staff. They take several factors of the case into consideration:

  • The history of the suspect
  • Statements from witnesses, both law enforcement and others
  • Any confessions
  • Other factors involved, such as drugs or alcohol use
  • Recommendations from law enforcement officials
  • The victim's family

"You might recall that this is a promise I made during campaigning," Nelson said. "The decision whether or not to seek the death penalty is the most important decisions by this office. Putting in place policies on how the office seeks the death penalty ... is incredibly important."

Darlene Farah spent years trying to convince previous State Attorney Angela Corey not to pursue the death penalty against the man who killed her daughter, Shelby. Three months ago, under Nelson's leadership, James Rhodes was sentenced to life in prison.

"To me, the victims’ families should have some say-so," Darlene Farah said. "They should take into consideration what victims' families think, because we have to live with the pain every day."

This panel will also review any death penalty cases that are sent back for review because the sentence was not reached by a unanimous jury decision.

Several defense attorneys told News4Jax they agree with Nelson's approach, saying this panel is a step in the right direction and should be applauded.

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