Family asks for coroner's inquest in woman's death
Updated On: Sep 02 2014 08:31:22 PM EDT
The family of Michelle O'Connell is asking State Attorney R.J. Larizza to follow the recommendation of the Florida Department of Law Enforcement to have a coroner's inquest, saying O'Connell's death is consistent with homicide more so than suicide.
In a coroner's inquest, a medical examiner looks into the cause and manner of death, often with the help of a jury.
If the state attorney doesn't oblige, the family is asking Gov. Rick Scott to appoint a special prosecutor to do so.
"So far an unresponsive Gov. Scott has not gotten involved, has chosen not to get involved," said Jennifer Crites, O'Connell's sister. "We ask that he gets involved and to be transparent. We would think that the St. Johns County Sheriff's Office would like some transparency also by ordering a coroner's inquest if they have nothing to hide."
Tuesday marks four years since O'Connell, 24, died of a gunshot wound to the head. Her death has been ruled a suicide by three medical examiners.
Some members of her family insist she was killed by her boyfriend, St. Johns County Sheriff's Office Deputy Jeremy Banks, on the night they were talking about breaking up. The gun used in her death was Banks' service weapon.
Crites read the following sworn affidavit from a witness that was taken recently: "'My name is Danny Harmon. My date of birth is 3-5-75. I'm over the age of 18, with a sound mind. I'm the former owner of St. Augustine, Florida, Ring of Fire Bar, which is located on Anastasia Boulevard. I became acquainted with Jeremy Banks, a sheriff's deputy with the St. Johns County Sheriff's (Office), as a frequent patron of my bar. On many occasions I would have to ask Mr. Banks to leave my bar due to his excessive drinking and rowdy behavior.
"'On the evening following the death of Michelle O'Connell, Mr. Banks patronized my bar with friend John Mollow. Mr. Mollow informed me privately of Michelle O'Connell's passing and asked me to be lenient with Mr. Banks' behavior, in light of the situation. As I served Mr. Banks drinks, I heard him say, 'That B got what she deserved.' Mr. Banks went on to state, 'All she did was make me feel bad, and I'm not going to let her ruin my life.' By his statements, I grew immediately suspicious that Mr. Banks had something to do with O'Connell's death. As I waited to hear the outcome of the investigation, I would later learn that Ms. O'Connell's death would be ruled a suicide. As the O'Connell family questioned the death, I knew I must come forward with my information because I believe that Jeremy Banks had something to do with Ms. O'Connell's death.'"
Crites said Harmon relayed his comments to others within days after O'Connell's death, but it's uncertain when Harmon talked with family attorney Benjamin Crump, who was just retained this year.
"He would definitely reach a point when he was drinking where he -- something would snap and he definitely had an angry side," Harmon said Tuesday afternoon. "I said, 'This ain't right and there is something deeper that is not being said.'"
At a news conference Tuesday morning, the family, alongside Crump and other supporters, asked for due process in a case that has garnered national attention.
"This cries out for an independent review. This cries out for a coroner's inquest," Crump said.
A special prosecutor had been previously appointed to the case and found insufficient evidence that Banks was involved.
O'Connell's family said the sheriff shouldn't have investigated his own, and they said Banks was given special treatment. An FDLE agent who investigated the case concluded O'Connell was likely killed. That agent, Rusty Rodgers, is now under investigation himself for improper techniques.
"We feel like the investigation was sabotaged from the beginning, evidence was thrown aside, tossed in the trash, not collected, not sent off for forensic evaluation," said Ciarra Morris, O'Connell's best friend and godmother of her daughter, Alexis. "Michelle was a good person, and her life was every bit as important as anybody else's, and it deserves a fair investigation. She counted, and we will fight and we are not going away. We will fight until we get the due process that we deserve. And we are not fighting for our emotion, we are fighting based on the evidence that we have been presented."
Sheriff David Shoar has admitted mistakes were made in the investigation, but said he's sure O'Connell's death was a suicide.
Meanwhile, Crump said the case has become a women's issue. Women's activist Barbara Devane, of Florida National Organization for Women, also asked Scott to order an inquest and said women are watching and will be voting, promising that "we will remember in November" if Scott doesn't get involved.
Following the news conference, O'Connell's family walked to the State Attorney's Office to deliver the letter.
"The documents provided to the St. Augustine Office are being forwarded to State Attorney Brad King of the Fifth Judicial Circuit," a spokesman for Larizza's office said in a statement. "Mr. King was appointed by Governor Scott as the special prosecutor designated to investigate the O'Connell case."
Jacksonville attorney Gene Nichols, who is not affiliated with the case, said given ht evidence and the investigations so far, it's unlikely this will lead to criminal prosecution.
“We know that they are proceeding in the civil realm and there are lawsuits that have already been filed,” Nichols said. “But in order to try and follow any sort of criminal path they’re going to have to get the state attorney’s office to open this case again.”
Nichols said moving forward, what will be key is determining Harmon's credibility.
“To know that a homicide, a potential homicide was involved and for this to have been dormant for four years… when we talk about a smell test or a sniff test… unfortunately we have to consider that as well as to why are we just addressing this now,” Nichols said.
Nichols said hiring Crump was a strategic move, but it's not likely to bring the outcome the family wants.
“The State Attorney’s Office will likely say, 'We are sorry for the outcome, but we have done everything we possibly can,'” Nichols said. “I would be surprised to see the Governor's Office appoint another special prosecutor because again, you get into saying the last special prosecutor did not do their job well.”
Asked how confident the family is that O'Connell's death was not a suicide, Crites said, "The New York Times does not put suicides on the front page on a Sunday. Very confident."
The St. Johns County Sheriff's Office issued this statement Tuesday:
"It is not surprising that on the 4th anniversary of Michelle O'Connell's death, members of her family have orchestrated news events to again draw attention to this tragedy. Families of suicide victims often go to great lengths to try and demonstrate that their loved one did not take their own life and we have great compassion for these families.
"The fact is, the classification of this incident is 'suicide' following independent rulings from three (3) Medical Examiners, who ruled the death a suicide, and the Governor appointed State Attorney who also found no legal standing to pursue the death as the result of a criminal event.
"Aside from the legal findings, The Florida Department of Law Enforcement continues their internal affairs investigation of Agent Rusty Rodgers which began nearly 1 ½ years ago; additionally, Agent Rodgers continues to be the subject of a criminal investigation by State Attorney William Cervone regarding potential 'official misconduct' relating to this case. Finally, FDLE and Agent Rodgers are both defendants in civil cases, one case filed by Michele O'Connell's brother and the other filed by Deputy Jeremy Banks.
"We will refrain from speaking about this case in any detail until the above items are completed."
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