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First Coast Connect: State Attorney’s Office Defends Its Death Penalty Record

Assistant State attorney Bernie de la Rionda speaks with First Coast Connect Host Melissa Ross

Angela Corey’s state attorney’s office is defending itself against accusations it’s too quick to seek the death penalty in Duval County.

A study released this week by Harvard University’s “Fair Punishment Project” singled out 16 counties nationwide, including Duval for a high rate of convicts being sentenced to death.

Corey, who was expected to appear on First Coast Connect on Thursday but canceled just prior to the start of the program, was represented by assistant state attorneys Bernie de la Rionda and Mark Caliel, who told host Melissa Ross the study is flawed. They said death penalties in Florida are decided by juries and judges.

De la Rionda said the report admits it found no evidence that any innocent person from Duval has ever been put to death.

“This report acknowledges that there are zero people on death row from Duval County that are innocent,” he said. “All the people in Duval County that have gotten the death penalty are guilty. There is no issue as to their guilt.”

De la Rionda also disputed allegations the death penalty is racially discriminatory in Duval County. He said the majority of victims in cases he’s prosecuted were black. He also points to the conviction of David Sparre, also known as the Craigslist Killer. Sparre is a white man sentenced to death in the killing of black woman Tiara Pool in 2010.

Caliel defended himself against claims that many of those sent to death row have minimal intelligence. He pointed to a case mentioned in the Harvard study where defendant Thomas Brown murdered a co-worker and claimed he mentally disabled. Caliel said subsequent testing and interviews with Brown showed he was not.

Producer Kevin Meerschaert can be reached at, 904-358-6334 or on Twitter at @KMeerschaertJax

Kevin Meerschaert has left WJCT for new pursuits. He was the producer of First Coast Connect until October of 2018.