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Clemency hearing emotional for all

Between 9 and 10 Thursday morning, inmate T20636 was not much help to anyone, which is unusual because Jennifer Martin has a reputation at Hillsborough Correctional Institution for going out of her way for people.

During that hour she was working at her prison job as a teacher's aide. But instead of walking around the classroom showing inmates how to fill out mock Medicaid forms, she was standing in the back of the room, praying that her clemency hearing in Tallahassee was going well.

Eight years into a 16-year sentence for causing an auto accident that killed one passenger and seriously injured another in Tampa, Martin, 30, was waiting to hear if her sentence would be commuted.

After 10 a.m., the chaplain's aide walked into the classroom and told Martin to come with her. She had a phone call from Tallahassee.

She began trembling.

• • •

Friday, during an interview with the St. Petersburg Times, Martin talked about her "roller coaster of emotions."

The last year, she said, has been a balancing act between dreaming about life on the outside and reminding herself that she might be in prison eight more years.

One minute, she imagines that she and her 9-year-old son are putting red and green sprinkles on Christmas cupcakes. No, she tells herself, she is still in prison, thankful for the Christmas charity package of new socks. She tries not to think about putting the turkey on her parents' dining room table on Christmas Eve. Instead, she focuses on how she will wrap the small mirror she will give to her prison roommate — in a page from a comic book, glued with toothpaste.

"I can't let myself go too far with thoughts of the future outside," she says.

The clemency hearing Thursday morning before Gov. Charlie Crist and his three Cabinet members came about because Cabinet member Alex Sink, Florida's chief financial officer, read about Martin in the St. Petersburg Times in early April and requested it. At the hearing, Sink described Martin's sentence as "excessively harsh."

Martin's prosecutor, a former Hillsborough assistant state attorney, Paul Johnson spoke first.

"As a 10-year prosecutor," he said, "I put people away for life without regret. But Jennifer Martin's sentence has always bothered me."

He said it was difficult to face the loss of life, and he tried to stay quiet out of sympathy for the victims and their families. But, he said, he could no longer do that.

Martin was convicted of manslaughter by culpable negligence after she was speeding on Interstate 4 near Ybor City in April 1998 and lost control of the car. Martin's passengers — Josh Nicola, 23, who was killed in the accident, and Scott Schutt, 23, who was severely injured — were drinking that night. Martin, 18 at the time, had nothing to drink. Both men chose not to wear their seat belts, Johnson said.

He concluded: "I ask for mercy for Jennifer Martin."

During the hearing, 230 miles away, Martin closed her eyes.

"Please God, don't bring me to this point to fall," she prayed. "Please help me accept whatever the decision is."

Her lawyer, Andy Patten, told the clemency board about all of Martin's volunteer work and the religion, cooking and carpentry classes she has taken. In a report, the Florida Department of Corrections described her as "fully rehabilitated."

Her mother told the board: "When Jennifer was 18, I loved her, but I didn't like her. She was a typical 18-year-old. But, in prison, she has worked so hard to grow, and I'm so, so proud of her."

A victim's advocate read a heart-breaking letter from Josh Nicola's mother.

"My son died of a broken neck and blunt force trauma," she wrote. His widow, Christina, "still holds Josh in her heart," she said. And, Josh's two sons are growing up without their father.

"Our loss is greater than Jennifer Martin's time in jail," she concluded.

At the end of the hearing, Sink said the accident was "a tragedy for so many." Nevertheless, Sink said she supported clemency for Martin. If her sentence were commuted, suggested Sink, Martin could spend the remaining eight years on probation.

Charlie Crist, who had the final word, spoke next.

• • •

Martin walked across the prison yard with the chaplain's aide to an administrative area in the prison to get the news. The chaplain handed her the phone.

Patten got to the point quickly: "No ruling yet. The governor said he is taking it under advisement."

Her attorney told her he knew the wait was "excruciating."

Then, the former prosecutor took the phone.

"We've never spoken before," said Paul Johnson.

"Thank you so much," said Martin, her voice breaking for the first time.

"That's all right," said the prosecutor. "It was the right thing to do. . . . I know you're there largely because of me."

Later, Martin said she knew Johnson was going to speak at the hearing on her behalf. But talking to him overwhelmed her.

"He has gone so out of his way for me," she said Friday. "No matter what happens, I'm so thankful."

Her attorney told her a decision was likely to come before Friday.

Meg Laughlin can be reached at or (727) 893-8068.

Clemency hearing emotional for all 12/11/09 [Last modified: Thursday, January 23, 2014 1:37pm]
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