TAMPA — Jermaine DeWhite Anderson, a 6-foot-8 former Robinson High basketball standout known as "Slim," shook and sobbed as he stood before a judge Friday. Through his tears, he tried to explain how fear had led him to make terrible, and ultimately tragic, decisions earlier this year.
First, he sped away from a police officer who had pulled him over for a traffic stop. Anderson, 28, knew he faced arrest for driving on a suspended license and falling behind on child support payments.
Less than a mile away, at Main Street and Rome Avenue, he ran a red light, thinking the officer was still chasing him.
He swerved to miss another car and hit a man crossing the intersection in a motorized wheelchair. Marcelin Azor, a 64-year-old Haitian immigrant, flew onto the asphalt. Anderson kept driving.
But when he saw later on the news that Azor had died, Anderson said he knew what he needed to do. Heeding lessons from his mother — to act like a man, to take responsibility for his actions — he turned himself in.
"I was so scared," he told police officers on tape about 27 hours after the incident. "But when I seen that, there is no way I could live with that. No way."
Anderson pleaded guilty instead of going to trial on charges of leaving the scene of a vehicular homicide, fleeing to elude at a high rate of speed and driving with a suspended license. He faced three to 60 years in prison.
Assistant State Attorney Kim Seace pushed for 30 years. She said Anderson didn't step forward until he learned investigators were closing in. She argued that he had a history of trouble with the law and had blown the breaks given by other judges after arrests on grand theft and drug charges.
She played a silent video of the incident, caught on tape by the surveillance camera at the convenience store where Azor had just bought cigarettes. Anderson didn't watch.
His family and friends came forward to tell Hillsborough Circuit Judge Gregory Holder about the tragedies in Anderson's life. He had left a college scholarship behind to return to Tampa and care for his ill mother, they said. Both his mother and father had succumbed to drug and substance abuse. An aunt had tried to keep him on a straight path and admired his ability to smile through hardship.
"This is a bad thing that happened, but Jermaine is not a bad person," said the aunt, Sheila Reed Palmore.
Anderson told Azor's nephew that he had stalled in surrendering to police because he wanted to say goodbye to his children and get money for his pregnant fiance's rent and light bills. The nephew, Louis Cineux, said Azor's children and grandchildren have suffered financially since his death.
Anderson asked for mercy and a second chance.
Holder said mercy was up to God. The court's job, he said, was to provide justice. He sentenced Anderson to 15 years in prison and permanently revoked his driver's license.
But the judge was not without compassion.
Before bailiffs took Anderson away, Holder allowed him to say a proper goodbye. Anderson and his older brother embraced and cried into each other's shoulders. A cousin read Psalm 23 aloud from her worn Bible. The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.
Then the mother of Anderson's unborn son approached, her belly swollen under a purple shirt. Anderson looked at her, his face full of regret.
Colleen Jenkins can be reached at email@example.com or (813) 226-3337.