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Inmate appeal leads to review of his life sentence

TAMPA — Ever since a jury convicted him of killing three young men with his Cadillac, Joseph Safrany has been asking for a new trial.

He spent years in the prison library, poring through law books, filing appeals. His handwritten documents fill two file boxes in the Hillsborough County courthouse and include hundreds of pages of arguments in CAPITAL LETTERS.

He cites at least 24 reasons he should not be serving life in prison.

Lots of inmates spend their ample free time scratching out appeals, hoping to hit on something that will get them a new hearing, a new trial, a new chance.

The difference for Safrany, 45, is that it actually worked.

He won't get a new trial for the April 2000 accident.

But on Monday, a new judge will hear from his mother and friends, a jailhouse chaplain, maybe even a priest, and will decide whether the former lighting salesman should get a new sentence.

Circuit Court Judge Wayne Timmerman also will listen to the parents of Safrany's three victims, who think he got what he deserved.

• • •

Safrany grew up in the Bronx. He was 21 when he moved to Tampa to build big buildings. He started his own lighting company, adopted a stray cat named Scooby, bought a 1993 Cadillac.

On April 6, 2000, he was drinking beer at a Tampa bar with friends. Around midnight, he went back to one of their houses to watch a movie. He was driving home down Sheldon Road about 3 a.m. when his Cadillac smashed into the side of a Honda, killing three young men inside: Shawn Falla, Brandon Smith and Troy Call. Call, who was driving, also was drunk. The fourth man, Robert Falla, broke his neck and both legs. He had been stationed at MacDill, but because of his injuries had to leave the Air Force.

Police said Safrany was speeding: 73 mph in a 45 mph zone. His blood-alcohol level was 0.18, more than twice the level that Florida assumes impairment.

After his broken ribs healed, after doctors released him from the hospital, Safrany posted $55,000 bail. Then, two days after his 36th birthday, three weeks before his trial, he threw himself a party. And skipped town.

A detective interviewed hundreds of his friends, combed their trash for clues, called in the FBI. On a Saturday night in September 2002, after 15 months of living with a dead man's name, Safrany saw himself on America's Most Wanted. And knew he had to turn himself in.

• • •

The prosecution offered a plea bargain: 15 years for driving under the influence manslaughter, plus five for becoming a fugitive. Safrany said no. And went to trial.

On the day the jury found him guilty, Aug. 15, 2003, the judge asked if there was any reason Safrany shouldn't be sentenced right away. His court-appointed lawyer didn't offer any. Safrany didn't speak.

"I mean, what am I supposed to do with that?" defense attorney Harvey Hyman asked during a 2009 hearing. "My own client doesn't want to defend himself prior to the judge pronouncing sentence."

But the victims' parents had plenty to say. They pleaded with the judge to impose the maximum sentence. And he did.

From his prison cell, Safrany started appealing: His lawyer was ineffective, he alleged. The defense attorney didn't interview key witnesses, didn't present all the evidence. His mom never even got a chance to tell the judge how sorry he was.

Finally, in May 2009, Hillsborough County Circuit Court Judge Michelle Sisco agreed to hold a hearing for post-conviction relief. Six months later, she called Safrany's mom and friends to testify about his remorse.

If Safrany's original lawyer had heard those witnesses before the sentencing, Sisco ruled in December, "the court would have imposed a lesser sentence."

So now, seven years after being sent to prison for life, Safrany will get another day in court. The judge who originally sentenced him has retired. So a new judge, Wayne Timmerman, will hear from the victims' parents — and from Safrany's supporters.

"The victims' families are outraged," said Becky Gage of Hillsborough County Mothers Against Drunk Driving. "They're devastated they have to go through this again. When he got life, they thought they got closure."

Safrany's mom, friends and jailhouse chaplain will tell the judge how sorry he is.

"The thing that he said he would forever live with were the names of the boys, their families," his mom, Eileen Safrany, said during the October hearing.

"One of the things I noticed about Joe is he was more concerned about the victims and not so much about himself," said Thomas Rabeau, the Hillsborough County jail chaplain.

Judges have a lot of leeway in resentencing hearings, said Robert Batey, who teaches criminal law at Stetson University. They can uphold the current sentence, shave off years or make it worse.

The minimum recommended sentence for three DUI manslaughter charges is 34 years, said Assistant State Attorney Mark Lewis, who is prosecuting the case.

And Safrany has nothing to lose. "As a practical matter," Batey pointed out, "life is the worst sentence he's going to get."

Lane DeGregory can be reached at degregory@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8825. Times researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this story.

Inmate appeal leads to review of his life sentence 08/28/10 [Last modified: Saturday, August 28, 2010 10:57pm]
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