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Courts rebuff Jones’ bid for pretrial ‘religious fast’


Unless he contents himself with pushing the meat aside on his dining tray at the Indian River County Jail and just eating the veggies, accused killer Michael David Jones likely won’t be conducting a vegetarian “religious fast” as his October trial for first-degree murder draws near.

Last week Jones re-filed his new 10-page complaint under the Florida Religious Freedom Restoration Act after Circuit Court Judge Janet Croom ruled against Jones in a prior lawsuit.

The matter arose in February when Sheriff Deryl Loar rejected an internal jailhouse request, so Jones filed hand-written pleadings appealing to the civil court for relief. A University of Miami law school graduate, Jones is acting as his own attorney.

The merits of Jones’ case, the way he originally filed it, just were not there, Croom wrote. “The petitioner has not established that he has a clear legal right to a vegetarian or vegan diet or that the respondents have an indisputable ministerial duty to provide him with said diet.”

In her July 31 order, Croom explained that Florida Statute regarding the protection of religious freedom is even broader that the rights guaranteed by the U.S. Constitution, but that Jones failed to demonstrate that his proposed “vegetarian fast” met the requirements of “religiously motivated conduct” under the law.

“A substantial burden on the free exercise of religion is one that either compels the religious adherent to engage in conduct that his religion forbids or forbids him to engage in conduct that his religion requires,” Croom wrote on page three of the four-page order dismissing the case. The Bible verses about fasting or abstaining from meat that Jones had cited, she said, did not establish that a vegetarian diet is a “religious mandate” of Christianity.

Croom’s dismissal of the lawsuit “without prejudice” left the door open for Jones to re-file, which he did after the Fourth District Court of Appeal rejected his “Request for Emergency Treatment,” asking the higher court to take another look at his case before October.

In his requests to Loar and Croom, Jones did not claim to have converted to the Buddhist or Hindu faith. He told Croom his devotion to certain principles and mandates of Christianity compelled him to deny himself meat in preparation for the legal battle for his life.

Prosecutors plan to seek the death penalty should Jones be unanimously convicted by a jury, as prescribed by state statute. Jones is accused of killing his girlfriend, 26-year-old Moorings resident Diana Duve, by strangulation and leaving her in the trunk of her own car in a Melbourne Publix parking lot in June 2014.

To bolster his cause in civil court, Jones claimed he had regularly attended weekly religious services at the jail, but he did not include any letters of support or explanation from clergy members who conduct the ministry to inmates.

The civil case regarding the religious diet has no direct bearing on the criminal proceedings against Jones as they are two separate matters running on parallel tracks in the court system. The argument that Jones can’t eat meat in jail after doing just that every meal during his past five years of incarceration did not fly with Croom. She pointed out that Jones could have filed in federal court but did not give him any bright hopes of prevailing there with only the arguments and facts on the table.

“Although prisons are required to protect inmates’ First Amendment rights if they do not contravene valid penological interests, the petitioner has not alleged or shown that the diet he requests is essential to his sincerely held religious beliefs or that the respondents’ refusal to provide them is not reasonably related to valid penological interests,” Croom wrote, citing case law as precedent.

Undersheriff Jim Harpring, who served as Loar’s legal counsel in the civil case, said about Croom’s ruling, “I can only comment that the Judge based her decision on the prevailing status of the case law in this area and we are pleased it is resolved.”

Requests for special religious diets at the jail are rare, but since Jones’ petition, other inmates had been inspired to seek special food. Harpring said previously when asked about Jones’ case that vegetarian diets must be procured from special vendors, which comes with a price tag. Fresh produce, Harpring said, is a valuable commodity that can be bartered with other inmates and each dietary request must be scrutinized to avoid inmates abusing the system.

“While we have received a few additional requests for religious meals, I have reviewed them in light of the prevailing law, and they have been denied. None have been appealed,” Harpring said last week.