Jacksonville judge rebuffs state’s request for life, gives teen 35 years in prison after murder plea

Despite the prosecutor’s push for a life sentence, a Jacksonville judge sentenced a local teen to 35 years in prison for shooting another teen in 2010. Ernest Thomas Bell, 16, was just 14 at the time of the shooting and pleaded guilty to Jacksonville second-degree murder, according to a report in the Florida Times-Union. Bell shot someone who had picked on him periodically through the years, the newspaper reported, but the victim was unarmed at the time. Bell faced between 25 years and life in prison, according to state guidelines. Life sentences for Jacksonville Juveniles who have been arrested have been a hot topic in Jacksonville after a local case was part of a U.S. Supreme Court ruling in which life sentences were found unconstitutional for juveniles not convicted of murder. Another local angle is the case of Cristian Fernandez, who was charged last year of first-degree murder at age 12 – the youngest person in the state to ever be charged with that crime.

A different Jacksonville judge threw out statements Fernandez made to police, saying he didn’t understand the severity of waiving his right to remain silent. Jacksonville police and prosecutors have spun the ruling around to argue the legislature clearly did not intend for only people 18 or older to be eligible to be charged with first-degree murder. Bell shot Shavarius Wilkes once in the shoulder and once in the back of the head, the newspaper reported, a shooting that ended up being the final round of an ongoing dispute. By charging Bell with second-degree murder instead of first-degree murder, prosecutors essentially said they could not prove the shooting was premeditated and that Bell went to the scene with the intent to shoot and kill Wilkes. First-degree murder would have resulted in a mandatory life sentence. It is also a charge that can only be brought by a grand jury. Second-degree murder charges are solely at the discretion of the State Attorney’s Office so, if a case might be a little thin, the state will sometimes file as a second degree rather than risk getting shot down by a grand jury. Second-degree murder is also punishable by up to life in prison; the difference is the charge does not carry a mandatory life sentence.

A charging decision on a Jacksonville criminal case can be a good tell on how strong a prosecutor thinks his or her case is. Often times, especially recently, the state can have a tendency to overcharge clients. So if there’s an instance where it looks like they’ve charged lower than they could, an experienced Jacksonville Violent Crimes Lawyer will sniff that out and look further to try to find out exactly where the holes are. If you or a loved one needs a criminal defense attorney in Jacksonville or the surrounding area, call The Mussallem Law Firm at (904) 365-5200 for a free consultation. Our Duval County violent crimes lawyer, Victoria “Tori” Mussallem, is available 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.