TAMPA — James Vernon Smith stood in a courtroom Thursday afternoon and begged a judge for help.
I have a problem, he said.
A binge drinker for more than 30 years, he has led a life of self-destruction. He has at least nine convictions for driving under the influence. His license has been revoked repeatedly.
Locking him up, his attorney argued, won't give him the treatment he needs.
"Please do not throw me away and forget about me," Smith said at the sentencing for his latest conviction, as he read a letter he wrote and choked back tears. "I'm more than just a drunk. I'm a son, I'm a brother, I'm a father and there's still good left in me."
Dressed in an orange jumpsuit with shackles around his ankles and wrists, Smith, 48, listened as Hillsborough Circuit Judge Kimberly Fernandez sentenced him to 10 years in prison for the DUI charge and five years of probation for driving while his license was permanently revoked.
Fernandez said she took into account the need for treatment and a need for punishment.
"It is very difficult for the court to excuse his conduct because his conduct simply demonstrates a flagrant disregard for the law," she said.
Upon release from jail, Smith will receive psychiatric, drug and alcohol evaluations, she said. He'll also be required to commit half his 100 community service hours to speeches about drinking and driving.
It's not the treatment Smith's attorney, Mark O'Brien, sought.
"The reality is that he will go sit in a prison cell for the next eight years and he won't receive the help he needs," O'Brien said.
Robert Whitford, a mental health counselor who evaluated Smith last week, testified Thursday that Smith suffers from severe mental disorders. Smith was unaware of his problems until the diagnosis, Whitford said.
Those issues most likely contributed to his binge drinking, Whitford said. Smith requires treatment that a prison may not be able to provide, he said.
Smith, who lives in Louisiana and works as an underwater welder, has two daughters who live in Hillsborough.
He spent the last four months in the Hillsborough County jail awaiting his sentencing and used the time, he said, to contemplate his actions.
"I have never understood why I do this. I've led a reasonably successful life, but I continue to sabotage myself by drinking," he read from his letter in court. "I've worked hard my entire life, and I've been handed the keys to the kingdom on numerous occasions, only to leave them sitting on the bar somewhere."
Smith has been convicted of seven DUIs in Florida, one in Georgia and one in Louisiana, prosecutors said. There may be yet another conviction from Louisiana, his own attorney said, but the records were waylaid by Hurricane Katrina.
And he's not done yet. In May, he is scheduled to return to Hillsborough court to face the possibility of one more.
News researcher John Martin contributed to this report. Shelley Rossetter can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (813) 661-2442.