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Jacksonville man convicted in 1996 murder avoids death penalty second time around

James Belcher was resentenced for the rape and murder of Jennifer Embry because the original death verdict wasn’t unanimous.

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. — Prosecutors called the crime “the worst of the worst,” but jurors resisted giving James Belcher the ultimate punishment. 

Instead, the 63-year-old man will serve the rest of his life in prison instead of returning to death row.

Belcher was previously convicted of the 1996 murder of 29-year-old Jennifer Embry, a student at Florida Technical College who was raped, strangled and drowned in her Westside townhouse. 

Belcher was sentenced to death in 1999, but because the original jury verdict wasn’t unanimous, he had to be resentenced.

RELATED: Death penalty resentencing starts Monday for convicted Jacksonville murderer

Belcher is one of dozens of defendants in Florida entitled to being resentenced following a 2020 decision by the U.S. Supreme Court finding non-unanimous death sentences unconstitutional. 

The resentencings apply retroactively only to certain defendants: those whose death sentences became final -- including any postconviction appeals – after June 2002 (when the Arizona case that triggered the Supreme Court decision was decided).

“Death cases — especially ones that go back decades — are difficult to prosecute, but our decision to proceed was warranted by the egregious facts of this crime and the defendant’s extensive violent record. The jury in this case could not reach unanimity in its finding and we respect its decision," the Florida State Attorney's Office said in a statement to First Coast News.

Belcher’s case comes just a few months after the resentencing of Alan Wade, a man convicted of murdering a Jacksonville couple by burying them alive in 2005. In that case, as in Belcher’s, the jury failed to find the crime especially “heinous, atrocious and cruel” – one of the aggravators that qualifies a crime for the death penalty. Wade will also spend the rest of his life in prison.

Last December, purported serial killer Paul Durousseau was also resentenced to life after spending years on death row. He was convicted of the 1999 rape and murder of Tyresa Mack, but he's a suspect in five other murders that occurred in Jacksonville between December 2002 and February 2003. He is also linked to several other murders in Germany that occurred during the time he was stationed there with the Army. 

Durousseau was only prosecuted for Mack’s murder, and therefore jurors were not told of the other cases.

The original prosecutor Bernie de la Rionda, and the original defense attorney Lewis Buzzell, returned to retry the Belcher case, along with current Assistant State Attorney Alan Mizrahi and Assistant Public Defender Al Chipperfield.

RELATED: Man convicted of murdering Jacksonville couple by burying them alive receives life sentence

RELATED: 'Every day I'm tormented': Alan Wade apologizes to family of victims in buried alive case




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