Wednesday, February 15, 2012

The Story of Shaina Sepulvado

Shaina Sepulvado was convicted of capital murder in 2007 in the death of her stepfather, James Kelly. The crime took place about a year and a half earlier in 2005, a couple of months after Shaina had turned 16.

By the time Shaina was convicted and sentenced to life without any possibility of parole, she was 17 years old. Shaina was demonized by the press and referred to repeatedly as "evil" in statements given by Kelly's family.

Shaina was one of four people to stand trial for Kelly's murder. Her mother, Marcia Kelly, was also charged with murder even though she claimed to be at work in another town. The conviction was based on testimony suggesting that Marcia had hired an individual by the name of Colton Weir to murder her husband. Marcia's attorney argued in his closing statement that even though testimony was provided to the court suggesting she played a role in her husband's death that the state of Texas had not met its burden of proof.

The jury disagreed. Marcia's attorney managed to work into his closing statement that she would receive a life without parole sentence if convicted, but this had little effect on the jury's decision that the prosecution met its burden.

With so many defendants involved in a single case, it was likely difficult for the jury to wrap their head around the true events leading up to Kelly's murder. The lack of physical evidence did not help to clarify what role, if any, particular people played. Additionally, testimony was at times confusing and contradictory.

In reference to the competency of those involved in Kelly's murder, the attorney offered the following in his closing statement: "The cast of characters is somewhat startling. The activities that these people engaged in are things that we, in normal society, just don't realize exist. The drugs involved and the alcohol involved have led these young people to make mistake after mistake after mistake in their lives, culminating with the death of James Kelly...a tragic death, should never have occurred."

The state's case was built on circumstantial evidence. Though Shaina had a difficult childhood by many accounts, the circumstances of her upbringing were not considered by the jury. Shaina's own mother admits now that her daughter was sexually abused by Kelly, reflecting on a time when she found her husband's favorite sex toy in her daughter's bedroom, and then also recalling a significant change in her daughter's behavior after evenings when she left the young girl alone with her stepfather.

On Marcia's web site, where she makes public appeals for people to assist her in obtaining legal help, she wrote: "During my trial when the D.A., Stephanie Stephens asked Shaina why she never told anyone, Shaina answered because James had threatened to hurt me, and to start molesting Jami (her younger sister), whom he knew she adored. Stephens called her a liar and an evil person."

Though Shaina was painted as the criminal mastermind who coordinated the murder of her stepfather in retaliation for his having sexually abused her, the fact was that her intellect was below average. An appeal of her waiver into adult court revealed that her IQ was 73. The licensed psychologist, Dr. Donald Winsted, III, classified her intelligence level as being "borderline". A person with this degree of intelligence is considered cognitively impaired. Winsted additionally described Shaina as emotionally immature, estimating that she was functioning at the level of a ten year old child.

The most striking thing about the psychologist's findings related to Shaina's overall lack of sophistication with regard to intelligence and planning. The appeal reads, "Winsted stated that someone with a profile like [Sepulvado's] would tend to be more influenced by that person's mother's request that she kill someone and would have more difficulty deciding that such a thing was not in her best interest."

Perhaps the biggest issue pertains to Shaina's competency at the time of her trial. She was a 16 year old teenager who was functioning emotionally and cognitively at the level of a ten year old. She was operating at an intellectual level that made her susceptible to manipulation on the part of others. It is astounding that the state of Texas found Shaina competent to stand trial, let alone competent to stand trial as an adult.

There also appear to be other mitigating factors that must be considered in addition to her degree of functioning. If Shaina was experiencing sexual and physical abuse, as she testified to in court, this certainly would have been an influencing factor. Shaina's mother admits to seeing repeated signs of abuse and all but ignoring them. She wrote about allowing her daughter to move out of the family home at the age of 15 to "keep the peace", suggesting she was in the habit of putting the needs of her husband over those of her own daughter.

Other disturbing facts are present when one begins to dig into this already convoluted case. Though Marcia references Shaina a number of times on her web site, her appeals for legal help do not extend to Shaina at all. A trust fund was established to collect donations to assist Marcia, but there is no indication that any of the proceeds are intended to help her daughter. It is possible these pleas for help/money exist on the part of Marcia, for Shaina, but I was unable to find them.

There is, however, a woman who is assisting Shaina in an effort to obtain legal help for an appeal. Her name is Lili and she started a petition to ask that Shaina receive a full pardon. Please view the petition at the following link and considering signing on behalf of Shaina:

Dear Governor Scott: Unshackle Cristian Fernandez!

While the new private attorneys for Cristian Fernandez carry out their work silently behind the scenes, the rest of the case drama continues to play out in the public and the media. State Attorney Angela Corey is enjoying a moment of reprieve from the ongoing pressure she has received in reference to her seeking charges against Cristian in adult court. This is thanks to a new campaign asking that Cristian be unshackled for future court appearances.

Or is she?

On Valentine's Day, a particularly unflattering article was released in Folio Weekly that discussed Angela Corey's reactions to both prior media articles written about her and the campaign drive to have Cristian tried as a juvenile.

Just when tension seemed to reach a pinnacle for Angela Corey, a new effort to help 13 year old Cristian emerged, pulling Governor Rick Scott into the spotlight previously enjoyed almost exclusively by Angela.

The campaign to unshackle Cristian began as an email. I sent an email to Judge Mallory Cooper asking that she please refrain from shackling Cristian at future hearings. I contacted the judge in response to hearing from another individual that after asking Angela Corey whose decision it was to shackle Cristian, she stated it came down to the judge and the sheriff's office.

I did not receive a response from the judge in regard to my email, but I did receive a call from Angela. She was not happy about the email I sent the judge. Her main point of contention was that I had said Angela referenced that it was the judge's decision to have the shackles removed and I had not made any indication of the sheriff's office. I remedied that, however.

I contacted the private attorneys to inquire if a motion was filed to have the shackles removed. I never received a response. Alicia and I talked about the issue and decided that the best course of action was a petition. Alicia put up the following petition to ask that Cristian no longer be shackled at his hearings:

Another petition has since been started in reference to the shackling issue:

To ramp up the effort, I took the advice of a fellow supporter who asked me to write a letter to Governor Rick Scott regarding the shackling issue, but I decided to take it another level. I started a Facebook email writing campaign.

So far, the event has 186 people attending and a significant number of people who have expressed they have written to Governor Rick Scott:

In addition to writing to the governor, some have taken to Rick Scott's Facebook page to voice their opinion. It is, however, a somewhat hostile environment. In response to supporter Saba Din's request to Governor Scott regarding the unshackling of Cristian, Mike Donohue from Tampa suggested that Cristian should "remain caged for the rest of his life or at least get the lethal injection." Another poster, who seemed generally confused, contributed the following: "Insane white supremacist leaders on here should get the death sentence! It is coming soon!"

Meanwhile, those sending emails to Rick Scott via email have started to receive standardized responses from someone named Warren Davis. Warren states that Governor Scott has no influence over the situation because it is a criminal matter and that we must voice our concerns to Angela Corey.

Been there.

Done that.

No, Governor Scott. I'm sorry to tell you, but the buck is going to stop with you for now. At least with regard to the shackling of a minor child. If the prosecutors in your state act without impunity then I guess that means the voters can choose someone else at the next election. You are supposed to act on behalf of the people and we, the people, are telling you this is a matter of civility and we want this child unshackled.

So if you are reading this, please take a moment and write to Governor Rick Scott using the following contact form. If you are outside of Florida you can use the zip code 32202 and the county of Duval. Let him know that we are not going to give up. We are not going away. We are done listening to people tell us that someone else makes the decisions.


And we thank you for doing it.

Monday, January 2, 2012

Jacksonville State Attorney Angela Corey is inconsistent in her prosecution of crimes

Jacksonville State Attorney Angela Corey is notoriously tough on juvenile crime, but many have wondered if her stance on crime extends to adults. So I decided to take some time and dig a little into her office's history of prosecution. I wanted to see what kind of over-the-top charges adults were being given seeing as how she is seeking to put a 12 year old child in prison for the rest of his life (without any option for parole).

Instead of finding what I was looking for, I discovered something worse: inconsistent treatment of adult offenders under Angela Corey's office when compared with her office's handling of juvenile crime.

In 2010, Jessica Martin was arrested in response to driving under the influence. She was driving a pickup truck at the time and crashed into a van carrying 11 people. The crash resulted in the death of 49 year old Moses Hughes Jr. and severely injured four children. This wasn't Martin's first DUI charge, either. It was her second.

Was she given life without parole? No, she was not. She was sentenced to 18 years in prison, with an additional 10 years of probation. She knew it was a crime to drink and drive as she had been arrested for it previously. Yet somehow the death of one man and the serious injury of four children was not deemed as significant as the one Corey would like to believe 12 year old Cristian Fernandez perpetrated.

In late 2009, Jannette Ramos was charged with manslaughter for the drowning of her 19 month old son. The boy drowned in a retention pond. Neighbors testified that the young boy had gotten out of the apartment a number of times before, suggesting negligence on the part of his mother. Despite evidence that it took the mother 15 minutes to notice her son was missing, her sentence was significantly less harsh than the one Corey wants to give to Cristian. The case was prosecuted through Angela Corey's office by Assistant State Attorney Alan Mizrahi.

In 2011, Ramos was sentenced to 15 years in prison and an additional seven years of probation. Her remaining children will be grown before she emerges from prison; however, the fact is she will be released. If convicted on February 27 of 2012, Cristian will not.

Jessica Rivera was charged in Duval County, under Corey's office, with manslaughter for the death of her 13 year old child. The girl was found nearly brain dead, severely malnourished, and covered with lice. The police informed the media that the mother "admitted to them she hadn't cared for her daughter." A police report revealed that Rivera felt her daughter was "a burden".

The maximum sentence for manslaughter in Florida depends on the classification. The maximum for the harshest manslaughter charge is 30 years in prison. However, a number of people charged with manslaughter under Angela Corey's office have received 15 years.

It is disturbing to think that in the state of Florida people with a history of multiple DUIs are only charged with manslaughter when they kill someone, but a 12 year old child is facing the harshest sentence possible for minors (since the death penalty is no longer an option).

I wonder how Angela Corey would respond to a question regarding these inconsistencies. It's not as though she can say she was just doing her job. After all, her job is to protect the public and people with multiple DUI offenses are pretty dangerous. If you don't believe me, just look at the number of people killed as a result of alcohol induced accidents. In 2009, 10,839 people were killed in drunk driving accidents. It was estimated that "one alcohol-impaired-driving fatality occurred every 48 minutes in 2009."

So in the eyes of Angela Corey, a twelve year old child is more culpable than an adult with multiple DUI offenses or an adult who knowingly neglects and/or abuses his or her child to the point of death. Disturbing, isn't it?

There are no excuses for Corey's handling of Cristian's case. She knew what she was doing when she sought an indictment for murder and the felony charge of aggravated child abuse. She knew the maximum sentence was life without parole. She knew the only way Cristian could escape such a consequence was to accept a plea deal that would brand him a killer for life - . Corey did not allow Cristian's case to go to juvenile court in a willful abuse of power. Nothing more. Nothing less.

If you are appalled at her handling of Cristian's case, or by the inconsistencies in prosecution demonstrated by her office, sign this petition. And take a moment to share it with others.

Friday, December 23, 2011

Cristian Fernandez could become the youngest person in America sentenced to life without parole

If Cristian is convicted as a result of the trial taking place on February 27 of 2012, he will be the youngest person in America to receive a life without parole sentence. Prior to Cristian, the youngest person convicted and sentenced to life was 14 year old Lionel Tate. In 1999, Tate was about six months into his twelfth year when he was charged with murdering a much younger playmate. The conviction was overturned in early 2004.

Cristian Fernandez was born on January 14 of 1999. He was charged with injuring his younger brother, David, on March 15 of 2011. This occurred during the early morning hours. David was receiving treatment for his injuries at the time. Cristian was indicted for murder and aggravated child abuse on June 2 of 2011. He was four and a half months into his twelfth year.

Cristian is not the youngest to face murder charges in adult court, however. Jordan Brown was 11 years old when he was charged with the murder of his father's fiance and her unborn son. His case was eventually returned to juvenile court in 2011. Jordan is still awaiting trial in juvenile court due to delays out of his control. Specifically, three media outlets appealed the judge's decision not to open the case to the media. The Pennsylvania Superior Court has yet to rule on this matter.

Cristian's potential status as the youngest person to receive life without parole in America raises some important questions about Florida's treatment of juveniles in the criminal justice system. Lionel Tate was also charged and convicted in the state of Florida. Tate was offered a plea deal that involved serving three years in a juvenile facility for second degree murder. The plea arrangement also required Tate to receive probation for ten years. His mother rejected the plea deal, hoping that he would be acquitted in court. He was not.

A profound similarity between Lionel Tate's case and that of Cristian Fernandez is the exploitation of the felony murder rule. This rule is extremely controversial because it requires juries to convict without the prosecution proving premeditation for the murder piece of the charge. As of 2008, 46 states still had felony murder provisions contained within their statutes.

When Tate was convicted and given the mandatory sentence in Florida of life without parole, those present in the courtroom were stunned. It appeared that few people realized a life without parole sentence would be the consequence if he was convicted.

It is difficult to fathom why the felony murder rule still exists, or at least why there is no legislation preventing prosecutors from using this rule to overcharge juveniles. A number of states have eliminated the felony murder rule. These states include Kentucky, Hawaii, and Michigan. It is important to note that Florida includes a much longer list of crimes within these statutes, expanding the reach of the legislation and increasing the damage it can potentially cause.

One of the ways to prevent children like Cristian from receiving life without parole sentences is to target the laws enabling prosecutors to achieve these results. Direct filing processes are another contributor to the problem.

Saturday, December 17, 2011

Did Angela Corey mislead the public about Cristian Fernandez case?

The tragic saga otherwise known as the Cristian Fernandez case approached a new level of injustice on Friday when Florida Judge William Wilkes denied the defense's most recent motion. The defense was trying to block State Attorney Angela Corey's attempt to indict Cristian on another charge.

Corey is known throughout the Jacksonville community for her lock-the-kids-up-and-throw-away-the-key approach to juvenile crime in Florida.

In 2010, the Florida Times Union reported that the number of juvenile felony cases tried in adult court had doubled under the reign of Corey. Though some might argue this approach is effective in solving the community's persistent crime problem, numerous studies paint a very different picture. In 2009, the University of Texas at Austin released a comprehensive analysis of the practice of trying children as adults. The authors of the study wrote, "The practice of treating children as adults for criminal justice purposes also poses serious risk to the individual child. The research unequivocally shows that children prosecuted as adults are more likely to re-offend and to pose a threat to society."

In the past, Corey has claimed that it was never her intention to subject 12 year old Cristian Fernandez to life in prison. She expressed confidence that the State Attorney's office and the public defenders office would reach a plea deal. The defense rejected the plea deal because it required Cristian to carry a murder conviction on his record for the rest of his life - something that would seriously inhibit his ability to find employment or a place to live upon release. Another problem with the plea deal is that it exposed Cristian to possibly having to serve three of the last years of the sentence in an adult prison.

Though Corey informed the public and the media she never intended for Cristian to serve a sentence of life in prison, a trial date for Cristian was subsequently set for February 27 of 2012. If convicted, the mandatory sentence is life in prison without the possibility of parole.

Due to Corey's recent handling of this case, an advocate for Cristian started a petition to remove Angela Corey from office.

But that's not all...

In response to the defense's rejection of the State Attorney's plea, Angela Corey informed the media that she would be seeking an additional indictment for the alleged sexual molestation of one of Cristian's sibling. According to a brief made available by the Florida Times Union, Corey knew about this allegation earlier this year. She has made no effort to seek an indictment on this charge until now. The timing is highly suspicious in light of Corey's statements and behavior relating to this entire case.

Corey has claimed the additional indictment for Cristian was necessary to protect the victim. The question is: why didn't the victim matter in March and April of this year?

Cristian has an extensive history of physical and sexual abuse that is well documented. The Florida system has failed Cristian and his siblings in countless ways. Corey continues to contribute to this egregious failure by making it her personal mission to destroy Cristian's life and rob him of any chance at rehabilitation in the juvenile system. The kicker of this recent ruling is that the judge is not requiring the grand jury hear about Cristian's background and the factors contributing to the events in this case. An appeal of that ruling is almost certainly guaranteed.

Angela Corey's efforts to mislead the public did not stop with her claim she was never seeking life in prison for Cristian. On December 12, Corey made the following erroneous statement to the media: "In the juvenile system, we can only incarcerate or have him contained for not even two years, and that is not an option to protect the community.  However, we understand at his young age he deserves a chance at rehabilitation. The plea deal we have offered would combine those two things."

This false and inaccurate statement did not go unnoticed, however. In response to this claim, the Southern Poverty Law Center, released a statement in an attempt to set the record straight. In the statement they referred to Corey's claim by saying, "This is just not true." The statement went on to add: "Florida law grants the juvenile system broad discretion to handle the treatment and rehabilitation of children like Cristian, including the power to detain a child as long as necessary to protect public safety." The statement contained additional information about the ability of the juvenile justice system to treat and rehabilitate Cristian.

So why did Angela Corey mislead the public? Why is she making false statements to the media? More importantly, why is the media printing this information without providing readers with the facts?

Why is Corey so bent on destroying one boy's life and placing the public in harms way at a later date because of her actions?

We may never know...However, if you're curious perhaps you can give Corey a call or shoot her an email to inquire about it. Be careful not to take what she says at face value though. As you can see from her past actions, she does not always provide all of the facts.

Angela Corey's phone number: 904-630-2400
Angela Corey's email:

The Strange Case of Josh Young

Josh Young of Louisville, Kentucky is 15 years old and potentially facing life in prison without parole for his alleged role in the murder of his 14 year old brother, Trey Zwicker.

On May 11 of 2011, the body of Trey Zwicker was found in a ditch around 1pm in the afternoon. He was discovered by a group of students behind a local school. The police reported no solid leads as to what happened to Trey. His father, Terry Zwicker, made a plea in the media, stating, "somebody knows something."

Nearly a month passed with little word in the media about the events surrounding Trey's murder. However, on June 12, the media issued a report regarding an emergency protective order taken out by Trey's mother against her live-in boyfriend, Josh Gouker. Details contained within the protection order were released to the public, including the claim that Trey's mother feared "for her daughter's life" and that Josh Gouker was "suspected in her son's murder".

Two days following the release of this information, the media reported that Josh Gouker and his 15 year old son, Josh Young, were missing. An amber alert was issued for the younger Josh as the police and members of the public suspected the two had fled the state.

On June 17, Gouker and his son were reportedly found in Alabama. A man who claimed to know Gouker told the media that the man was "running for his life...he knows he's guilty." Suspicion swirled around Gouker in reference to Trey's homicide as the man had lived with Trey and his mother for a period of time following his release from prison. Despite having a lengthy criminal record, Gouker obtained custody of his son shortly before the murder. Josh had spent a significant amount of time in foster care prior to returning to his father's care.

On June 22, more information was released about the activities of Gouker in Alabama. Josh and his father were arrested on weapons charges and Gouker faced a kidnapping charge in reference to his having held a woman at gunpoint, forcing her to drive to a hotel.

The following day the media reported that 15 year old Josh Young had been arrested for the murder of Trey Zwicker. The public was shocked at the unexpected turn of events and anticipated that Josh's father would be arrested for the murder as well. He was never arrested in connection with the crime. Moreover, the prosecution has not yet released any information about why Josh was charged or what evidence was obtained to suggest his involvement.

Gouker was held in Alabama on charges stemming from June until he was released in September. Information spread that he was released by mistake, but officials denied this occurred. Gouker was again taken into custody in Kentucky in October. He was held based on a felony fugitive warrant.

In November of 2011, Josh was indicted on charges of murder and evidence tampering. Because the indictment took place through a grand jury the public had no access to any of the evidence the prosecution allegedly had against the 15 year old. However, Josh's attorney informed the media that the grand jury refused to hear testimony in support of the boy, suggesting the hearing was anything but impartial.

In late November, Josh was formally arraigned on charges in adult criminal court. Gouker's mother, Josh's grandmother, told the media that it was her son who committed the murder. She revealed startling information that her son had confessed to her about the murder shortly after it happened.

The Assistant Commonwealth Attorney, Elizabeth Jones Brown, countered Gouker's mother's claim by saying the police had investigated the case thoroughly.

Further information about Gouker's possible motive for committing the murder was contained in a statement by his mother. "Jessie says her grandson, better known as Little Josh, was set up by her son Gouker, better known as Big Josh. She says Gouker admitted to her that he killed his stepson right after it happened to get back at his mother. 'Him and Amanda were having really bad problems. She aborted two of his kids in 2000 and one of their marriages and he felt like it was a child for a child."

To date the prosecution has not released the evidence they have against Josh Young. They have not given any explanation about why his father, Josh Gouker, was not arrested in connection with the murder.

A petition urging the prosecution to further examine the potential involvement of Josh Gouker in the murder of Trey Zwicker may be found here. The petition also asks that 15 year old Josh Young be tried as a juvenile instead of an adult.