Faith leaders call for suspension of death penalty in Duval County

Report: 1/4 of Florida's death sentences came from Duval County

By Ethan Calloway - Anchor/reporter, Elizabeth Campbell - Reporter, Matt Galka

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. - Local faith leaders called for the suspension of the death penalty in Duval County at a news conference Wednesday morning after a new report from Harvard Law's Fair Punishment Project revealed that roughly a quarter of Florida's death sentences came from Duval County between 2010 and 2015.

According to the Fair Punishment Project, Duval County is one of 16 counties in the country that imposed five or more death sentences between 2010 and 2015. 

More than 50 religious leaders have signed a letter that will be given to the State Attorney's Office, supporting the suspension of the death penalty.

About a half dozen of those pastors spoke Wednesday morning at a news conference expressing concern over the report from the Fair Punishment Project.

“It was Gandhi who said, 'An eye for an eye makes the whole world blind,' and I believe we've become blind to some things,” said the Rev. Susan Rogers of the Well at Springfield. “There are some things we've been unable to see, but no more. We can see them now. We now know death penalty cases are riddled with evidence of socioeconomic and racial inequalities.”

The pastors said Duval County only accounts for 5 percent of the state's population but it's responsible for a quarter of Florida's death sentences.

"Our 4th Judicial Circuit needs a major overhaul with a new engine that is fine-tuned to provide equal justice for all. The cylinders are running an unequal justice," said Pastor Reginald Gundy of Mount Sinai Missionary Baptist Church. "The 4th Judicial Circuit oil is old and smells foul."

The pastors also talked about death penalty cases prolonging the the suffering of many murder victims' families, because of years of legal uncertainty and hearings. The bishop of the Catholic Diocese of St. Augustine was one of the leaders who spoke, saying society should choose life over death whenever called to do so.

“Every human life is sacred, regardless of what that person does. Human value in life is infinite, and here we stand because we think capital punishment is not needed,” said the Most Rev. Felipe Estevez of the Catholic Diocese of St. Augustine. “We can keep society safe by protecting everybody in society, by keeping prisoners for life without parole.”

Darlene Farah's teenage daughter was shot in killed during a robbery at a Northside cellphone store in 2013.

Since then, Farah, who was at the news conference Wednesday, has become an outspoken opponent of the death penalty, asking that the death penalty not be sought against her daughter's accused killer. 

"Killing somebody for taking away a life, that is not bringing the victim back," Farah said. "Let me put it this way. No justice comes out of a death penalty. Like, right now, what I'm going through and what my family is going through, I feel like we're going through a life sentence." 

State Attorney says report lacks facts

State Attorney Angela Corey said the report by the Fair Punishment Project lacks facts and failed to mention Nassau and Clay counties, which she said have the same philosophy as she does in Duval County. 

"It’s a liberal and biased report by a liberal and biased group of people who set an agenda and pulled specific things to fit their agenda," Corey said. "I have been working all morning. I can rebut everything in that report about Duval County, and I'm horrified that people haven’t challenged the veracity of that report, but I intend to challenge it."

Corey also mentioned how the report was released less than a week before her run for re-election.

"They studied three other Florida counties but saved those for a later report. If this isn't directly attributable to me running for office, why do they feel the need to just single Duval out in this report as opposed to comparing us to other counties in the state where the laws are the same?" Corey said. 

News4Jax reached out Wednesday to the candidates for 4th Judicial Circuit state attorney for their response to the proposition. Melissa Nelson's campaign responded, saying in a statement:

"The law of the land in Florida is that our state has the death penalty. As a prosecutor, Melissa Nelson followed the rule of law and, where appropriate, sought the death penalty in some cases. As the next state attorney she will continue to follow the rule of law and the Constitution."

Assistant State Attorney Bernie de la Rionda said Wednesday that he doesn't believe the Fair Punishment Project report is accurate. 

"We do seek the death penalty in appropriate cases here. And we will never apologize for seeking the death penalty," de la Rionda said. 

He said he respects those who disagree with the death sentence, but said there is a place for it in the justice system. 

"I also focus on the victim. We tend to forget, in this debate, the victims. What the victims go through. And I tell you, what some of these victims go through, in terms of what this defendant, the murderer has done to them, nobody should have to go through," de la Rionda said.

Corey agreed with de la Rionda's assessment and said she is looking up facts to contradict the report. Corey also said she will not apologize for enforcing laws. 

"I think it's awesome for our pastors to come together for the common good; however, the death penalty is the law of the state of Florida, and I will not apologize for enforcing our laws, including the death penalty, which is very carefully scrutinized before we seek the death penalty," Corey said.

Report: 4 Florida counties of 16 country-wide imposed 5 or more death sentences between 2010-2015

The new study from Harvard Law showed a decline in death penalty in America since the 1970s, but some counties in Florida don't fit into the trend. 

Four Florida counties were among 16 counties in the country that imposed five or more death sentences between 2010 and 2015, according to the Fair Punishment Project.

Hillsborough, Miami-Dade, Pinellas and Duval counties were all named -- with Duval being a focus. 

Ingrid Delgado with the Florida Conference of Catholic Bishops expressed disappointed that Florida isn't following national trends.

"For a long time, the bishops of Florida have been calling for an end to the use of the death penalty. So this study just confirms that the death penalty disproportionately affects minorities, the mentally ill and the poor," Delgado said. 

Death penalty cases around the state remain in limbo waiting on the state's Supreme Court to give guidance on capital punishment. 

Florida lawmakers raised the requirement this year so that 10 out of 12 jurors need to recommend a death sentence -- a change that's still being disputed.

"We would prefer that we end using the death penalty at all. But if we are a state that does use the death penalty, it should be recommended by a unanimous jury," Delgado said. 

The report found that in 2015, across the county, 49 death sentences were recommended -- the fewest since 1976.

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