Michael David Jones, a former PNC Wealth Management financial advisor awaiting trial for the 2014 murder of his girlfriend, nurse and Moorings resident Diana Duve, has been preparing for trial in his own bizarre way – by trying to convince the court to grant him a vegan diet to facilitate a religious fast.
Jones, who had been in Sheriff Deryl Loar’s custody at the Indian River County Jail since completing two criminal trials in Broward County in 2016, sued Loar when a request on religious grounds for “a vegan or vegetarian diet” was denied.
A law-school graduate, Jones is acting as his own attorney and has penned dozens of pages of hand-written pleadings from jail arguing his case to Circuit Judge Janet Croom.
Jones did not claim he’s converted to the Buddhist or Hindu faiths in which avoiding animal products in favor of a plant-based diet is highly encouraged. Court records show that Jones instead claims the Bible tells him he must embark upon a vegetarian fast “to adhere to Petitioner’s religious mandates.”
He’s not claiming a jailhouse conversion, but bases his request on being a “professed Christian since 1995.”
Undersheriff Jim Harpring is representing Loar and the Sheriff’s Office in the case. As of Monday morning, the jail housed 492 inmates, but Harpring said none of the current residents is being served a vegan or vegetarian diet for religious reasons.
Harpring, who prior to being promoted to undersheriff served primarily as chief legal counsel for the sheriff, said he reviews each such request carefully and grants or rejects it based upon relevant facts and the individual situation.
Jones in his initial pleading in February said that he’s met at least monthly with clergy for counseling. Harpring said Jones sporadically attends religious services at the jail, but that no letter of support for Jones’ “religious mandates” from a clergy member was included with Jones’ request.
He said no prison minister at the jail, to his knowledge, is encouraging inmates awaiting trial to enter any kind of penance fast.
“There was no letter from a Catholic priest, but that would have been given serious consideration,” Harpring said, adding that inmates sometimes make requests for special diets in order to trade the food, as fresh fruit and vegetables would be coveted and could be bartered for other items the inmate wants.
“We will comply with whatever the court orders,” Harpring said, adding that the Sheriff’s Office has a duty to Indian River County taxpayers to ensure that inmate requests that would increase the daily cost of feeding or housing them are legally valid.
If justified according to the law, the jail has food suppliers that could provide vegan meals, but it would not be cheap. Harpring said in his 15-year tenure, he has seen “a handful, maybe six or seven” requests, mostly for kosher meals or for halal, the Muslim equivalent, but Jones asserting a Christian imperative for a vegan or vegetarian fast is a new approach.
So new it led Harpring on a journey of sorts, researching what the Bible of his own Catholic faith says about eating meat versus a plant-based diet. Harpring said he also studied the history of fasting as a peaceful religious protest or as a demonstration by the imprisoned.
His detailed, 67-page response to Jones’ petition does not simply or summarily dismiss the claim that a vegetarian diet is supported by the Bible. Instead, Harpring went book by book through the Bible, countering and refuting Jones’ arguments with specific passages of scripture.
“There is no evidence provided by the Petitioner that any tenet of the Christian faith supports his request for a vegan or vegetarian diet,” Harpring concluded.”
Harpring also points out that Jones is only requesting the special diet “to engage in a fast in advance of his trial on charges of first-degree murder,” not to change his diet “as part of a continuous practice.”
Harpring said he is certain Judge Croom is taking Jones’ request seriously. ”Judge Croom is very thoughtful and thorough, she is not going to issue some shoot-from-the-hip ruling on this,” Harpring said. “I have not contacted her about it or asked when she plans to rule because that’s not how these things are done.”
It’s the plaintiff’s job to push the case along, and last Thursday Jones filed an inquiry asking Croom why she had not ruled yet and urging her to grant his request. The earliest Jones’ murder case might come to trial is August or September.
State Attorney Bruce Colton’s office is pursuing the death penalty and plans to show that Jones killed 26-year-old Duve by strangulation, then placed her in the trunk of her own Nissan Altima and drove her body to Melbourne, leaving her to be found by police in a Publix parking lot after a three-day search for her as a missing and endangered person.
Assistant State Attorney Brian Workman has served as lead prosecutor on the Jones case for nearly five years, while Assistant Public Defender Stanley Glenn manages Jones’ defense.
In January, Judge Cynthia Cox handed Jones’ case over to Judge Dan Vaughn after Cox spent two years trying to get the defense on track with depositions and expert witnesses so a trial date could be set.