TALLAHASSEE — Monique Baker of St. Petersburg will walk out of a Tampa prison on Friday, freed after two decades by Gov. Charlie Crist and the Cabinet.
The four officials, sitting as the Board of Executive Clemency, voted unanimously Thursday to commute Baker's 35-year sentence after emotional pleas from a state legislator, friends and her parents, all of whom called her a model inmate who's ready to return to society and be a constructive citizen.
"She's coming home," said Baker's mother, Beatrice, who sobbed outside the hearing room in the state Capitol and embraced her husband, John, who once managed St. Petersburg's city jail.
The parents said their daughter, a Gibbs High graduate, fell in with the wrong crowd and lost her way as drugs seized control of her life.
But behind bars, they said, Baker has honed her skills as a paralegal and teaches other inmates to develop their artistic skills.
A family friend, Mozelle Davis, wife of Verle Davis, a former St. Petersburg High principal, testified on Baker's behalf, as did Bill Puller, a retired official of the Pinellas County Sheriff's Office, longtime civic activist Jean Davies and Rep. Darryl Rouson, D-St. Petersburg.
"She has progressed a heck of a lot," Mozelle Davis told the Clemency Board. "We love her, we need her, and we wish she could come home."
"Monique is rehabilitated," Puller said flatly. "Return Monique to her loving family and her community."
Rouson said Baker's sentence was so long because she was classified as a habitual offender after committing burglary and other crimes to support a life of substance abuse.
"If we can't get her a job, I will hire her when she comes out," said Rouson, a lawyer.
Baker's release came on an emotion-packed day, and was the last clemency board meeting for the four officials, all of whom will leave office when their terms end next month.
Chief Financial Officer Alex Sink made the motion to commute Baker's sentence.
"It seems to me this is an incredibly long sentence for this type of offense," Sink said. "I also find the testimony very compelling."
Baker was sentenced to 90 years in prison in 1990 for smuggling more than 8 pounds of cocaine in a stretch limousine. She told authorities she and a friend got the idea from watching an episode of the TV show Miami Vice.
As family members and friends organized Baker's release from Hillsborough Correctional Institution, they considered hiring a limousine to pick her up. But Rouson recalled a friend telling him that might not be a good idea.
"Don't you remember?" the friend told Rouson. "She was in a stretch limo when she was busted."
Steve Bousquet can be reached at email@example.com or (850) 224-7263.