"Duval County Courthouse" by Excel 23 is licensed under CC BY- SA 3.0 (via Wikimedia Commons)

In the wake of a violent crime and loss of a family member, complicated decisions often must be made in an attempt to find a suitable resolution. In 2013, Darlene Farah’s 20 year-old daughter, Shelby, was murdered in Jacksonville, Florida by 24 year-old James Rhodes.  After security camera footage and Rhodes’s confession made the case clear-cut, Rhodes and his attorneys came up with a plea deal for him to get two consecutive life sentences plus 20 years in state prison with no trial or chance of his appeal. Despite Darlene Farah’s desire to accept the plea deal and allow her family to begin healing, the Florida State Attorney’s Office has decided instead to seek the death penalty for Rhodes.

Thirty-one U.S. states currently have the death penalty , but only 2% of counties in these states are responsible for the majority of today’s death row population and recent death sentences.  Jacksonville, Florida is a part of Duval County, one of the outlier counties in which prosecutors seek the death penalty at a much higher rate than others. Death penalty cases are very complex and may be drawn out long after the crime questioned, like the case of Shelby Farah’s 2013 murder.

Darlene Farah has said that “at every step of the process, our wishes have been ignored” while prosecutors continue to tell her that they know what’s best for her daughter’s case and its legal resolution, even if their decision to pursue the death penalty leads to decades more of trials and appeals. Arguments both against and in favor of the death penalty in the U.S. have long been debated, particularly from perspectives of economic consequences, morality, justice, empathy, deterrence from future crimes .

Given the complicated factors contributing to this case and others like it, should the criminal justice system privilege family wishes over legal precedents and attorney offices’ motives? While it’s true that the average citizen is most likely less informed about the law and legal processes than criminal prosecutors, families have an undeniably large stake in finding a resolution that allows them to move past a tragedy in the way best suited for them. Should the opinions and desires of families receive preference in these situations, or is it the prosecutors’ responsibility to seek punishment in the way their expertise leads them to see fit?