Thursday, July 30, 2015

Alleged "investigation" by Special Prosecutor JEFFREY LEE ASHTON in O'Connell case results in no criminal charges

No change in Michelle O'Connell case
Posted: July 29, 2015 - 8:56pm

St. Augustine Record

An outside prosecutor’s investigation into the shooting death of Michelle O’Connell has not found evidence to charge anyone in the death.

State Attorney Jeffrey Ashton from Central Florida, whom Gov. Rick Scott assigned to review the 2010 case, released an investigative report Wednesday about the death and sent a letter to Scott with his findings and decision.

Ashton says his findings confirmed that the case “does not meet the standards established for prosecution” that were set before his review began.

O’Connell died in September 2010 in St. Johns County, where her boyfriend, Jeremy Banks, was a sheriff’s deputy. The gun used was Banks’ department-issued handgun.

The St. Johns County Sheriff’s Office led the initial investigation that was eventually ruled a suicide. O’Connell’s family members have said she wouldn’t have killed herself, and some questioned the integrity of the original investigation and believe Banks is responsible, though he has denied any wrongdoing.

An investigator working for Ashton concluded this month that unless someone confesses to killing O’Connell, “this case will never reach the level of being suitable and/or presentable for prosecution.”

The investigator, Patrick Schneider, wrote in a 70-page recap of the case that facts of the case seem to him “more consistent with suicide then [sic] with homicide.” But he added that another person with different experiences to draw on might reach the opposite conclusion.

“Neither theory can, at this time with the evidence and testimony available, be totally proven,” Schneider wrote after recounting a string of mistakes or omissions he said were made during a series of investigations.

A number of subsequent investigations into O’Connell’s death — as well as a high-profile New York Times story in 2013 — have pointed in different directions and directed extra attention to the case and the original investigation. An executive order tasked Ashton with investigating any newly discovered evidence that could alter the outcome of a prior inquiry determining O’Connell’s death was a suicide.

The official ruling from State Attorney Brad King, from the 5th Judicial Circuit, previously assigned by the governor as a special investigator, was that there was insufficient evidence to bring criminal charges against Banks.

However, the case received new life when State Attorney R.J. Larizza (the state attorney for St. Johns, Flagler, Putnam and Volusia counties) asked Scott to appoint a new investigator after a new witness affidavit was brought to his attention.

In the affidavit, Danny Harmon says he is the former owner of The Ring of Fire bar on Anastasia Boulevard. He says that Banks was a frequent customer and was often asked to leave because of excessive drinking and “rowdy” behavior.

Harmon says Banks visited the bar the day after O’Connell’s death and he heard Banks say: “That [expletive deleted] got what she deserved.” And: “All she did was make me feel bad. I am not going to let her ruin my life.”

Ashton was then assigned to the case.

Ashton’s office said in Wednesday’s news release about the findings that it appointed Schneider to “thoroughly evaluate and review the previous investigations and alleged new leads.” The alleged new evidence did not alter the original findings.

“When I received this assignment from Governor Scott, I made a strong commitment the case would be investigated thoroughly,” Ashton said in Wednesday’s news release. “I am confident that we have followed through on that commitment. I have carefully considered the findings of this report and conclude the evidence does not support probable cause a homicide occurred in connection with Ms. O’Connell’s death.”

A letter from Ashton to Scott said “much of the new evidence discussed ... suffers from the same ambiguity as the evidence previously examined. To the unbiased eye it is subject to multiple interpretations and reasonable hypotheses. There is nothing which adds any significant strength to the argument that it was a homicide.”

Angela Starke, spokeswoman for the State Attorney’s Office, cited examples of issues with evidence. Among other things, a black glove that was photographed at the scene of the investigation was not taken into evidence.

“And because that item was not collected, we were not able to determine the evidentiary value of that,” she said.

Schneider, assigned in October to work on Ashton’s examination of the death, wrote that, again and again, evidence that had seemed potentially important to the case had really been inconclusive.

He noted, for example, findings by a forensic expert that suggested the death scene had been staged because of the gun’s position in crime scene photos. Schneider wrote that the conclusion was later challenged and that “without additional knowledge and/or evidence no absolute conclusions could be drawn.”

He wrote that state prosecutors were still investigating a complaint that claimed a Florida Department of Law Enforcement agent, Rusty Rodgers, had falsified affidavits and omitted evidence suggesting Banks was innocent.

“If these allegations are sustained, it would discredit the entire investigatory effort” by Rodgers, Schneider wrote, and would taint evidence the Sheriff’s Office collected that Rodgers later had in his possession.

Attempts on Wednesday to reach the O’Connell family through their attorney or the advocacy group “Justice for Michelle O’Connell” were unsuccessful.

Mac McLeod, Jeremy Banks’ attorney, said Ashton’s report confirmed what he already knew.

“We’ve known the facts of this case for a long time, and the outcome does not surprise us,” he said Wednesday. “Jeremy Banks did not commit homicide, and was not involved in it other than the discovery.”

But he also recognized O’Connell’s family, saying he hoped the investigation will bring them closure.

“This is not a happy occasion, and it is still a tragedy,” he said.

St. Johns County Sheriff David Shoar declined to comment specifically on the O’Connell case on Wednesday night, saying via a news release that he didn’t want to affect the investigation involving Rodgers (see Sidebar).

“It would not be prudent to discuss the 9th Circuit’s findings in any great detail while the ongoing criminal investigation into the FDLE Agent’s alleged official misconduct is still being considered,” he said.

The release of the report and letter to Scott completes the duties assigned to Ashton and his office.

To see a copy of the report and letter, go to


Anonymous said...

Is it posdible that tve reason three prosecuters declined to pursue charges us that there isnt6 probable cause? I'm nit saying Banks didn't do it, im saying perhaps PC doesnt exist.

Clara Waldhari said...

You ask, "Is it possible..."? Perhaps. But I maintain my stance that this case was NOT fully investigated!

Ashton, in his letter to Scott, says they did NOT do a "from scratch" investigation, meaning they accepted at face value all previous findings! THOSE ARE THE FINDINDS AT ISSUE. PLUS the new evidence as cited in Clu Wright's report.

That the 9th Circuit simply rubber-stamped the original investigations, the sources/discrepancies at ISSUE, means this bogus "new" result could come to no other conclusion.

What the people want? An independent, competent legal source to RE-investigate Michelle O'Connell's death. From Step One to present.

Jeff Asston asked for and accepted an incomplete document, then signed it and sent to to the governor.