His life sentence became hers, but now there's hope

TAMPA — Debbie Holloman was 16 when she fell for a blue-eyed boy who looked like Vanilla Ice.

By 18, John Curtis Ivey had been to prison and back. He drank a lot, had no place to call home. She went to Brandon High. He wasn't in school at all. Her family didn't like the boyfriend she called Curtis, but she saw something special.

Once, he carried her through a field full of stickers.

Once, they watched a baby, and Curtis cleaned up the mess.

But the law notices only bad deeds. And Curtis was a thief.

On Feb. 21, 1992, Debbie saw him get sentenced to life in prison. It was her 18th birthday. She was pregnant.

Their son is now 19.

Debbie is 37. Curtis is 40 and still locked up. They've spent years trying to find a way to be together.

They've never been this close.

• • •

On Oct. 13, 1991, Curtis Ivey approached a man in a parking lot: "Hi buddy, check this out."

The man turned and saw a .22-caliber revolver. "Give me your wallet and money," Ivey said.

Ivey turned for a second, and the victim seized the moment. They struggled for the gun. Ivey pistol-whipped the victim and ran without the wallet. It all caught up to him.

Ivey stood before Hillsborough Circuit Judge Bob Mitcham four months later. At 20, he had 25 prior felonies. Ivey had a choice: Gamble on a jury or plead guilty and not be labeled a habitual felony offender. In both options, the maximum was life.

The term itself was up to the judge. Ivey figured he could shorten it with gain time. But the judge didn't pick a number. He sent Ivey to prison for life — no gain time, no parole.

In Florida, life means forever.

• • •

Ivey was awaiting his prison transfer when he and Debbie traded wedding vows before a Hillsborough jail chaplain.

Three months later, the baby came. She took him to his father in a prison in Lake Butler. She watched Ivey cradle their son.

Ivey wrote a letter to a judge in schoolhouse cursive:

I knew and know that what I did was wrong, and I'm very aware that punishment is due. . . . But not for life, especially for any crime less than a murder or a rape, or something that causes someone permanent damage. . . . Because at 20 years old, life in prison is a long time.

An appeal got him a resentencing. His mom cried. His dad, who had left Ivey young, told a judge he blamed himself. Debbie promised to be supportive if he were released,

But again, Ivey got life.

The relationship became hard on Debbie. Ivey was getting in trouble — possession of narcotics, possession of contraband, unauthorized use of drugs. And she didn't like the way he was treating to her: Why didn't you answer the phone? Why didn't you come see me? I don't have any money.

They divorced.

• • •

The boy was about 8 when he made a request:

"I want to see my dad."

Debbie started taking him to see Ivey, watching the two play in the crowded visitation room. Ivey said he had changed. Debbie grew to believe him. She had dated other men, free men. But with Ivey, something just clicked.

They talk on the phone every day. She visits him every weekend. They're allowed one hug when she arrives and one hug when she leaves. In Florida prisons, there are no conjugal visits.

He has been transferred through the years — DeSoto, Charlotte, Hardee, Sumter. She drives to him on Saturday, returns home, and drives back on Sunday.

In the past seven years alone, state records show, Debbie has visited him 687 times. The guards ask, "Why do you do this?"

She says, "I think people make do with what they have."

A saleswoman, she works in Tampa. She's petite, put together, has a nervous laugh. Only close friends know where she goes on weekends; others would never guess. She waits for the day she might bring him home.

Ivey earned a bachelor's degree in theology. He has spent years working for freedom, and Debbie has helped. She took him a copy of his case one day, and amid volumes of paper, he found a 19-year-old document that could make a difference. It was a sentencing score sheet. The defense and the judge had seen different versions.

The defense's sheet showed a recommended range of 27 to 40 years in prison and a permitted range of 22 to life. The judge's sheet recommended life.

Debbie hired lawyer Bryant Camareno, who is asking a judge to consider the recommended range originally presented to Ivey. The judge gave him a resentencing hearing.

It's today.

Alexandra Zayas can be reached at azayas@sptimes.com or (813) 226-3354.

His life sentence became hers, but now there's hope 07/27/11 [Last modified: Wednesday, July 27, 2011 10:18pm]

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