Mimesis Law
27 May 2017

James Xavier Rhodes’ Death Penalty Case Makes For Strange Bedfellows

Mar. 23, 2016 (Mimesis Law) — The mother of the victim of someone who’s facing the death penalty seems like an unlikely witness for the defense, but that’s exactly what happened in James Xavier Rhodes’ case:

The cold war between the mother of victim Shelby Farah and the office of State Attorney Angela Corey turned hot Monday as the two sides butted heads over the prosecution of the man accused of killing the 20-year-old.

James Xavier Rhodes, 24, is accused of executing the Metro PCS employee during a 2013 robbery at the North Main Street store in Jacksonville.

Darlene Farah testified Monday because lawyers for Rhodes asked to have Corey’s office removed from her daughter’s case and also sought to have Assistant State Attorney Bernie de la Rionda sanctioned for his behavior. De la Rionda is the lead prosecutor attempting to put Rhodes on Death Row despite the mother’s desire for a plea that would end the case and put him in prison for life.

It tends to be the case that, when the state decides to kill, few things are going to get in its way. When even victims can’t stop it, the quirks of the system become even more apparent.

As the idea of victims’ rights has gained traction over the years, it almost feels like victims have become a party in criminal matters. It can take extreme situations to make it apparent that they still aren’t. In domestic violence cases, for instance, a recanting or uncooperative victim often has interests directly opposed to the prosecution’s interests. In that situation, victims soon learn that it’s the government on the other side of the “v” from the defendant, not the victim. Of course, in domestic violence cases there’s the possibility the victim’s position may be a product of manipulation by the defendant, or that it might simply be against the victim’s own interests. That’s not the case at all with Darlene Farah.

Whether Rhodes gets death or life, nothing will change what happened to Farah’s daughter. Death also does nothing more than life in prison to prevent Rhodes from committing a similar crime again. What a death sentence does achieve is a lot more litigation, and that’s exactly what concerns Farah, though her son, the victim’s brother, doesn’t seem as bothered by it:

Farah has vocally opposed putting Rhodes on Death Row, saying she doesn’t want her family to go through the decades of appeals that will occur if he is sentenced to death. But Farah’s 19-year-old son, Caleb Farah, broke with his mother Monday and said he now wants Rhodes executed.

Caleb had previously supported his mother, but said Monday that he changed his mind. Mother and son did not speak during Monday’s hearing and Darlene Farah repeatedly said the situation was tearing her family apart and accused de la Rionda of turning her son against her.

The fact that prosecutors are forcing Farah to participate in a state-sanctioned killing she doesn’t support is more than a little troubling. They’ll no doubt call her to the stand at some point, likely against her will. On top of that, their insistence on seeking death has negatively impacted her relationship with her son. It’s hard not to wonder why killing Rhodes is so important to be worth all of that.

The prosecutor has a characteristically cut and dried reason for seeking death over Farah’s protests:

De la Rionda said he had nothing to do with Caleb now favoring the death penalty and also said he respected Darlene Farah’s wishes but felt the need to seek death because the evidence justified death.

Caleb’s reason for now wanting Rhodes to die is a bit more introspective:

Caleb Farah also testified Monday and acknowledged that he didn’t want Rhodes executed until about six months ago when he changed his mind. He said de la Rionda didn’t influence his decision.

He said he was spiritually weak and just wanted it over when he opposed the death penalty for Rhodes but has become stronger since then.

For the prosecutor, killing Rhodes is a simple as plugging the evidence into the applicable legal framework and going for whatever result that dictates. If the evidence justifies death, then death it is. Caleb, on the other hand, has now decided Rhodes should die because that’s apparently the position that comes from spiritual strength. It’s a very strange way of looking at things.

It will no doubt take strength from everyone involved to go ahead with trial. Trial is stressful. Even if the case against Rhodes is an absolute slam dunk, that fact will not change. At most, concerns about a potential not guilty verdict won’t be present. Concerns about a life sentence rather than a death sentence may be just as bad, however.

Just wanting it to be over with may indeed be indicative of weakness, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Again, it comes back to the fact that the practical effect of death for Rhodes is no different from the practical effect of life without parole. Caleb’s position almost makes it seem like he wants death purely because it is the more difficult route. Doing something just because it’s hard, not because it’s the right thing to, isn’t a great reason. Moreover, Caleb’s position seems to ignore the strength it takes to be merciful and forgive, and the fact his change of heart came after viewing the video of his sister’s murder suggests it might be rage, not strength, that led to his new position.

It should come as no surprise that the judge refused to disqualify the prosecuting attorney’s office. It’s hard not to respect some creative lawyering from the defense, but I doubt even Rhodes’ lawyers thought the judge was really going to kick the state’s attorney off the case for seeking death over the victim mom’s objection, showing the victim’s family a video of the crime, and then publicly defending its decisions. As is often the case, though, the winning legal argument and the moral high ground aren’t necessarily the same thing.

The fact remains that the state wants to murder Rhodes simply because it can murder Rhodes under the circumstances. It doesn’t have to happen. The state doesn’t have to go against Farah’s wishes. It doesn’t have to force her to participate in something she doesn’t want. It doesn’t have to continue to fuel a rift between her and her son.

But the state wants death, and it really isn’t about the victims at all. This time, it’s just extra obvious because the state’s desire to kill has put one victim’s mother very clearly on the side of the defense.

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