WAUCHULA — His fiancee packed him a suit jacket and a tie and bought dressy shoes. Her sister tucked banana bread and fresh mangos into a picnic basket for him. His attorney quietly hoped for good news.
After three years in prison, Jean Claude Meus walked out of the Hardee County Jail on Friday afternoon, released on $25,000 bail and free to move back to Tennessee until his case is retried.
"Hey sweetie!" his fiancee, Rebecca Chenoweth, called out as cameras swarmed. He smiled, thanked the gathered crowd and then hugged her tightly.
"I feel good," he told her. "I'm coming home to you. You know I feel good."
Meus, a 44-year-old Haitian immigrant and truck driver, has maintained he committed no crime in a 2001 traffic crash that killed Nona Moore, 40, of Wauchula, and her 8-year-old daughter, Lindsey.
Hardee County Circuit Judge Jeff McKibben granted Meus a new trial after an appeals court cleared the way for a new witness to testify, a man who contradicted prosecutors' claims that Meus fell asleep at the wheel and caused the fatal crash.
Since then, Meus' fiancee and Nona Moore's sisters joined forces, working to get him released from prison, certain of his innocence.
Before Friday's 2 p.m. hearing, his supporters were nervous. Chenoweth stood outside the courthouse, trying to calm herself with a cigarette.
The judge listened to testimony from Moore's sister, Dana Christensen, who said the family wanted him released on bail.
"Myself and my family have been behind Mr. Meus the entire time," she said. "We feel he is not guilty, and we would like to see him free."
Meus' attorney, John Trevena, said Meus posed no flight risk. Trevena pointed out that Meus is a permanent resident of the United States. Meus was granted bail during the original trial and never tried to flee. He has a fiancee, a son and a job.
"Mr. Meus is anxious to rejoin his fiancee and re-enter the community," Trevena said.
Prosecutors argued that Meus might try to flee because he has been incarcerated and would have a powerful incentive not to want to return to prison.
McKibben quickly announced his decision, saying that although Meus had been under "constant scrutiny" since the fatal crash, he had never failed to comply with any court instruction.
"Don't blow it," the judge told Meus.
"You won't be disappointed," Meus said.
The scene outside the jail looked like a reunion of sorts.
The newspaper reporter who first raised questions about the case updated Chenoweth on his upcoming marriage and job.
Chenoweth's sister brought lawn chairs to ease the wait.
The Moore family came, too, as did the NAACP, whose local leaders had raised questions of racial disparity in the sentencing, contrasting Meus' case and that of Jennifer Porter.
Porter, a former teacher in Tampa, received probation in 2005 for her role in a crash that killed two children, while Meus was sentenced to 15 years in prison.
Porter is white; those who died were black. Meus is black; those who died were white.
Haley Moore, 13, survived the crash that killed her mother and sister. She waited with her family at the jail.
"I'm definitely glad that he's getting out. That's how it should be," she said.
She added that she believes Meus' freedom would please her mother. "She would be really happy. I know that she wouldn't want him to go to jail."
Later, Meus and Chenoweth sat together at a restaurant, sipping sweet tea.
The couple are ready to return to a normal life.
She's already picked out the perfect spot for a beach wedding.
He said he wants to go to work in the morning and come home at night like a normal person.
Both can't wait to cook dinner and do the dishes, together.
Abbie VanSickle can be reached at (813) 226-3373.