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Former NFL and Storm linebacker gets 15 years in DUI retrial

TAMPA — No one, not even the prosecutor or the judge, doubted that former NFL and Tampa Bay Storm linebacker Darion Conner had done some good for himself in prison.

Plenty of convicts talk about jailhouse redemptions, but Conner's change seemed genuine. Standing in court Thursday, he said he still thought every day about the man he killed by driving drunk in September 2004, and he wanted to help other people avoid making the same mistake.

Hillsborough Circuit Judge Ronald Ficarrotta said he believed that. Then he sentenced Conner, a serial drunk driver, to 15 years in prison.

"Your conduct went beyond making a mistake," the judge said. "My God, you should have known better."

Ficarrotta's words and sentence echoed a courtroom scene from four years ago when Conner, standing before him convicted of DUI-manslaughter and vehicular homicide, pleaded for mercy and got the maximum punishment.

But last year, the 2nd District Court of Appeal overturned the conviction and sentence on the grounds that jurors shouldn't have seen an accident photo that showed bicyclist Jonathan Michael Conklin sprawled face-down in a pool of blood after being struck by Conner's Toyota Landcruiser.

Prosecutors retried Conner, 41, last month, sans the bloody photo. Again, jurors convicted the father of two after hearing evidence that his sports utility vehicle was seen swerving erratically on Linebaugh Avenue before he struck the 32-year-old Carrollwood resident.

Conner's blood alcohol level was 0.27, more than three times the level at which the state presumes impairment.

He already had three driving-under-the-influence convictions on his record.

His supporters and defense attorney said he needed treatment for alcoholism, not just punishment for his crime. They asked for a shorter prison sentence to be followed by probation or house arrest.

Prosecutor Matthew Smith said the state wasn't willing to take that chance. Conner sounded like a wonderful person, Smith said, but when the accident occurred he was a "rolling time bomb."

The judge gave Conner credit for the four years he has already served behind bars and ordered him never to drive again.

"I cannot get past your prior record," Ficarrotta said. "I cannot get past the severity of this crime."

Colleen Jenkins can be reached at cjenkins@sptimes.com or (813) 226-3337.

Former NFL and Storm linebacker gets 15 years in DUI retrial 04/30/09 [Last modified: Friday, May 1, 2009 12:38am]
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