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Hillsborough judge gives 'juvenile' offender 100-year-sentence

TAMPA — For a day of terror 24 years ago that started with near-murder and ended with rape, Jere Walker will not leave prison at least until he is an old man — even though the five life sentences he got when he was 17 have been ruled unconstitutional by the U.S. Supreme Court.

Walker, now 41, came before Hillsborough Circuit Judge Debra Behnke on Wednesday, asking her to let him put behind him the crimes he committed as a youth that he now realizes were "life-shattering" and "soul-crushing." His victims included a former state attorney who went on to become an appellate judge, his wife and their widowed friend, and a Texas tourist who said rape ruined her life.

Behnke took only minutes to resentence. She said Walker's crimes occurred in the same year she became a judge — 1988. Since then, she said, "I've seen thousands of cases, very few with facts like this. That's the only speech I have."

She then gave Walker 100 years.

In earlier court hearings, Behnke heard how Walker was the youngest member of a gang that had ridden around Tampa in a pickup truck in the spring of 1988 looking for people to rob. On June 29, they accosted former state attorney E.J. Salcines and his wife as they returned from a dinner with their friend, oral surgeon Antonio Castro.

Castro described how Walker stuck a pistol in his face and tried to fire, except the gun jammed. He credited Salcines with saving his life by grabbing Walker's hand. Salcines fended off slashes from a box cutter's knife, saying his wedding band saved the tendons in his ring finger. He broke his thumb trying to rip away their license tag as the robbers drove off.

Later in the evening, Walker and the others accosted a couple on vacation from Texas, forcing them into their motel room on Busch Boulevard. Walker raped a 31-year-old mother of two while her children were kept in a bathroom and her husband was held at gunpoint.

In an earlier hearing, the woman told Behnke, "I am haunted to this day." Walker said, "I'm tortured by the fact that I'm the cause of so much pain and agony."

Because of a 2010 Supreme Court ruling that said juveniles who don't commit murder can't be given life sentences with no hope of parole, Walker had a chance of a new sentence and possible release. His attorney argued that Walker already has served the equivalent of a 47-year sentence, factoring in gain time. The attorney asked the judge to sentence Walker to two years of community control and allow him to live with his family. They would provide work for him at a pressure-cleaning business.

The prosecutor sought an 80-year sentence that he said would keep Walker in prison until at least his early 60s.

Behnke's sentences Wednesday went beyond what the prosecutor sought.

She gave Walker two consecutive 30-year sentences for robbery and attempted first-degree murder. She added to those a 40-year sentence for two counts of sexual battery. They added up to 100 years.

To determine a release date, the state Department of Corrections now has to calculate how much gain time Walker has earned. At the time of his convictions, the state allowed prisoners to earn up to 20 days per month in gain time, but he had disciplinary problems that could affect that. He also would have to behave for decades to come to earn more gain time.

Assistant State Attorney Douglas Covington said he could only estimate that Walker will remain imprisoned into his elder years.

Whether such long sentencings meet the Supreme Court's guidelines is being debated throughout the country.

"It's an evolving area of the law," said Tampa defense attorney John Fitzgibbons. "Where is the line drawn between a sentence that conforms to the Supreme Court's holding that there must be a possibility of parole versus a sentence of years so lengthy that the defendant will die in prison?" He predicted that question will be battled in courts for years to come.

Tampa defense attorney Grady Irvin added another consideration: What the judge heard from Walker's victims.

"It's very often difficult," he said, "for us to substitute our opinions for that of a judge who knows the impact of a defendant's perceived malice and total disregard for his victims. When we reach that point, it's better to leave matters in the hands of the judge."

Salcines, now 74, said the sentencing satisfied him. He said his personal safety wasn't an issue; he just felt Walker deserved maximum punishment.

"Justice was done."

Times researcher John Martin contributed to this report. John Barry can be reached at (813) 226-3383 or jbarry@tampabay.com.

Hillsborough judge gives 'juvenile' offender 100-year-sentence 08/08/12 [Last modified: Wednesday, August 8, 2012 11:00pm]
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