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.