By Bill Cotterell
TALLAHASSEE, Florida (Reuters) - The sister of a north Florida woman whose fatal shooting more than three years ago was ruled a suicide made a tearful plea to Governor Rick Scott on Thursday to order an investigation, in a case that has raised questions of a police cover-up.
Jennifer O'Connell Crites handed a letter to the governor's receptionist and said, between sobs, her family has started an online petition to build public pressure for an independent inquiry into the death of her sister, Michelle O'Connell.
O'Connell, 24, was found shot to death September 2, 2010, at the St. Augustine home of her boyfriend, St. Johns County Deputy Sheriff Jeremy Banks, who has denied any involvement in her death.
The Florida Department of Law Enforcement (FDLE) recommended an inquest, after the county sheriff's office and state attorney's office determined that O'Connell had shot herself.
"After the St. John's County Sheriff's Office investigated one of their own, my family outcried along with the public to get an outside investigation," Crites said. "FDLE came in, did an outside investigation and found that my sister's death was more consistent with a homicide than a suicide."
John Tupps, a Scott spokesman, said that under Florida law, "it is for the state attorney to decide whether an inquest is appropriate under the circumstances."
He added, "Governor Scott sympathizes with Ms. O'Connell's family for the loss of their daughter."
Attorney Ben Crump, a Tallahassee attorney who has been involved in several prominent cases, held a news conference in front of Scott's Capitol office on Thursday with Crites and Ciara Morris, of St. Augustine, who described herself as the dead woman's best friend and godmother of her 6-year-old daughter.
The women held photos of O'Connell and her daughter, Alexis,
while supporters raised a large poster behind them, urging an inquest into her death.
"We are following evidence, not emotion," said Morris. "There are several pieces of evidence that lead us to believe - to show - that this was not a suicide."
She said O'Connell had a broken front tooth, a bruise above her right eye and a cut on her upper lip, which she said resulted "possibly from a struggle."
Crump said the family has started an online petition at change.org/inquestformichelle.
"These women want to come to the truth of what happened that night. They know she would never commit suicide and leave her daughter Alexis alone in this world," said Crump.
In their letter to the governor, the women said, "In ordering this inquest, the message will be sent that the protection of women involved in domestic conflicts will get the full benefit of the law."
(Editing by Kevin Gray and Leslie Adler)