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Opinions on fair jail sentences can mellow with time

On a chilly February day, after seven years in prison, Jennifer Martin got an unexpected half-day furlough to go to her grandmother's funeral, a privilege her warden said is "granted only to the most trustworthy inmates."

When Martin's parents picked her up at the prison, she climbed in the backseat. There, in front of her, was a little boy who looked just like her.

"Mommy!" he shouted, throwing his arms around her neck.

Martin, 28, hadn't seen her 8-year-old son since he was a toddler because her estranged husband won't allow him to visit. Fighting tears, she wrapped her arms around him.

After the service, she and her child walked to a shady area at the cemetery. She swung him around, carried him on her shoulders and chased him. She buried her face in his hair. Two months later, she can still close her eyes and smell his shampoo.

The boy began to cry as they dropped Martin off at prison. Eight more years without him would be unbearable, Martin thought. But, she told him: "Today was a gift from heaven and we have to believe that miracles do happen and there will be more."

The biggest miracle would be a reduced sentence, but several years had passed since she had applied for one, and that process seemed stalled. When the metal doors clanked shut behind her that day, Jennifer Martin knew that one member of a victim's family had forgiven her. But she had no way of knowing that practically all of the forces that had sent her to prison for 16 years were about to reverse themselves.

In 1998, Jennifer Martin caused an automobile accident in Tampa that killed one of her passengers and severely injured the other. Martin had no alcohol in her system but she was speeding — going over 80 in a 55-mph zone — and that was enough for a jury to convict her of manslaughter by culpable negligence.

At her sentencing, the mother of the man she killed, Jacksonville chef Josh Nicola, told the judge that her 5-year-old grandson used a stick at his father's grave to dig through the grass into the dirt. "To get closer to my daddy," the boy said.

The judge sent Martin away for 16 years, right in the middle of the 12- to 20-year guidelines. Never mind that a Florida Highway Patrol report (not admitted into evidence) said that the two men she had met in Ybor City weren't wearing seat belts.

The severely injured passenger, Scott Schutt, and his sister, Lori Stewart, thanked the prosecutor "for getting Martin what she deserved." Nicola's widow, Christina, asked if Martin's punishment could be increased. The judge saw in the case further proof that society demands strong retribution for victims.

But society also allows for reconsideration, for the forgiveness that comes with time. It's called clemency. And if you speak to the key players in this saga you discover that this process is working in unexpected ways.

Take Paul Duval Johnson, the prosecutor.

At trial, Johnson says he took a hard line for the victims and their families but worried that the punishment was too harsh.

"I look at what the victims' families lost and I understand their pain, which translates into a need for vengeance," he says. "But vengeance is only pretty when it's your own. When it's not, it's very unappealing.

"Jennifer Martin never intended any harm," he now says. "Where's the evil here?"

Johnson says now he would speak on Martin's behalf at a clemency hearing.

Then there's victim Scott Schutt and his sister, Lori Stewart, who applauded the sentence. Scott's injuries forced him out of the U.S. Coast Guard and permanently onto a walker. A few years ago, he gave up his driver's license because of a slew of speeding and careless driving tickets and accidents. Now, he rides an adult tricycle around his Jacksonville neighborhood, greeting people with slurred speech and sometimes imagining things that aren't there.

"But basically I'm still me," he says.

Schutt agrees that Jennifer Martin has done enough time. "She's not still in prison, is she? If her behavior has been good, I think it's okay to let her out."

In April, 2008, his sister wrote Martin in prison.

"I know the accident was just that — an accident, " she said. "Poor choices were made by all three of you that night, but I don't think you set out to hurt anyone, and I forgive you."

J. Rogers Padgett, the judge who sentenced Martin, calls the case "a there-but-for-the-grace-of-God-go-I situation."

But he believes the decision to release Martin should be made by prison officials.

"I only got a snapshot of her," he said. "But (the Department of) Corrections has watched her for years and is in the best position to decide."

If the department says she has a good record and will be a contributing member of society, Padgett says he wouldn't object.

• • •

Turns out Martin's record is spotless.

She takes every class that's offered — preferring Bible and cooking classes — and hopes to go to culinary school and work part time as a chef when she gets out.

Carol Cameron, who teaches prison Bible classes, remembers Martin as "extremely bitter and cynical" during her first few years in prison. But with time, says Cameron, Martin changed.

"She started to lead a thoughtful, examined life and find the best in everything," she says.

Jennifer Martin will be the first to say that when she first got to prison she was filled with self-pity and anger. She faked jailhouse religion, she says, but didn't really believe in anything.

But with counseling, she gradually began to see things differently. She realized that Josh Nicola's widow felt the same way about her that Martin's father felt about her ex-boyfriend, who killed his and Jennifer's baby girl when Jennifer was 17. After accidentally dropping the baby, the ex-boyfriend put off going to the emergency room. The child bled to death.

"My dad sees him as a murderer and can never forgive him, which helps me understand Christina," she says.

• • •

In July 2006, Martin's attorney, Melinda Tindell, filed a clemency petition asking for a shortened sentence — a process that usually takes years. Tindell said that representatives from the clemency board told her in late March that they hadn't even opened the envelope that Martin's application was mailed in. They thought they would get to it before 2010.

Nevertheless, the voice that might carry the most weight in this proceeding belongs to the woman who has found it hardest to forgive.

Two years after Martin was sentenced, Christina Nicola married Josh's best friend and became Christina Perry.

Martin "could have written or called and asked for forgiveness, but she didn't bother," Perry says. "So, why should I think about forgiving her?"

Johnson, the prosecutor, says Martin was warned by lawyers not to contact the victims' families because of their strong negative feelings toward her. "Their pain was too great and we believed it would only agitate them," he says.

Perry says she's against early release for Martin. She's not sure, though, if she would go to a clemency hearing and speak against her, but she thinks she would probably write a letter. "I have a very busy life," she says. "I can't say what will happen down the road."

Both Tindell and Johnson say the feelings of victims' family members carry a huge amount of weight, and even a letter from Perry, despite huge support for Martin, could negate anything said in her favor.

• • •

Martin concedes prison has been good for her, and she can accept what happens. But she despairs that she might not see her little boy again until he's almost grown.

"I feel I've lost not one but two children," she says.

Ross Cumberledge, the man who accidentally killed his and Martin's baby girl, wrote the St. Petersburg Times two years ago, seeking attention for her case.

"It's not fair that I got 12 years and Jenn got 16," he wrote. "She was the very person I hurt the worst, but she was able to forgive me. I pray that her victims' families will offer her the same hand of compassion."

Meg Laughlin can be reached at mlaughlin@sptimes.com. Times researchers Caryn Baird and Carolyn Edds contributed to this report.

Opinions on fair jail sentences can mellow with time 04/04/09 [Last modified: Wednesday, April 15, 2009 11:07am]

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