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Investigation: 'Death in St. Augustine'

Leon County Judge John Cooper on June 30, 2022, in a screen grab from The Florida Channel.
New York Times
The Florida Channel
Leon County Judge John Cooper on June 30, 2022, in a screen grab from The Florida Channel.

The death of Michelle O'Connell, a 24-year-old St. Augustine woman found dead of a gunshot wound, seemed suspicious for many reasons: She had complained to her sister that her boyfriend had been abusing her, and she was in the middle of moving out when she died.

Neighbors heard a woman screaming before two shots rang out. Deputies found the boyfriend drunk and in a rage when they arrived. The gun that killed her was his, and she would have had to hold it upside down to kill herself with it. There was no note. And yet her death was ruled a suicide.

Could that be because the boyfriend, Jeremy Banks, was a deputy in St. John's County Sheriff's Office -- the same office that investigated the case?

In an exhaustive report, the New York Timesand Frontline found that the detectives never tested the forensic evidence collected after the shooting. Nor did they interview O'Connell's family and friends, who would have told them she was excited about starting a new job and that she was a loving mother with a 4-year-old daughter she adored.

When the Florida Department of Law Enforcement County entered the case, tested the evidence and conducted a new autopsy, its investigators came to quite a different conclusion. Its forensic expert classified the death as a homicide. But as the Times reports, the state couldn't get the local state attorney's office to prosecute.

The Times said domestic abuse and even homicide are often unpunished if the offender is in law enforcement. The team went through 29,000 complaints against law enforcement officers in Florida and found domestic abuse draws the most misconduct complaints but other types of offenses are more likely to lead to job loss.

And it isn't just Florida. In a related story, the Times reports that a report of domestic violence by law-enforcement officers is much less likely to result in job loss than other types of misconduct.

The televised version of "A Death in St. Augustine" is scheduled for broadcast on most PBS stations on Tuesday at 10 p.m. 

Originally founded in December 2006 as an independent grassroots publication dedicated to coverage of health issues in Florida, Health News Florida was acquired by WUSF Public Media in September 2012.