Jeffery Scott Sipple spent more than four years in prison for the death of his girlfriend, Tiffany Hampshire.
He maintained from the start that he acted in self-defense. No one listened.
He fought what he called his wrongful conviction, arguing that prosecutors used faulty evidence and that his attorney made mistakes. An appeals court listened.
Now — after striking a deal with prosecutors to get probation in lieu of a new trial — Sipple, 63, is a free man.
But freedom doesn't equal exoneration. "I'm free at the present," he said. "That's all the vindication I'm going to get."
In an exclusive interview, Sipple talked for the first time about how his life changed five years ago and the lengthy ordeal to clear his name.
He spoke in a slow, calm voice, in contrast to how witnesses portrayed him at trial: an angry, abusive boyfriend with a motive to kill.
Through everything, Sipple never stopped maintaining his innocence. And with the help of his family, he said he finally found justice.
"You never know it could happen to you," he said. "Things are never the way you expect them to be. My life changed in a matter of two to three minutes that night.
"I never lost faith. I knew I was innocent," he added. "I knew what I did was what everybody would have done."
• • •
Hampshire returned about 3 a.m. on Jan. 30, 2003, to a home she shared with Sipple on WPA Road near Brooksville.
An argument ensued. A gun was fired. Three bullets hit Hampshire.
She collapsed in a chair, and Sipple covered her body with a blanket. He stayed there for two days before going to his brother's house in Hillsborough County.
Sipple has trouble explaining the most gruesome details. Before that night, he said, she made him promise to always stay with her.
"She made me promise that I'd never leave her. It got in my head," he said. "I sat down that night and kept thinking about that and thinking about that and thinking about what to do. You can't really say why you do things until it happens to you."
Sipple told detectives he shot Hampshire accidentally when they struggled and she pulled the gun on him.
Investigators and prosecutors didn't believe him. They charged him with manslaughter. A grand jury later raised the charge to second-degree murder.
At trial, prosecutors put Hampshire's friends on the stand. They called her "Sunshine" and described her as a free spirit.
Jurors heard stories about how the couple's 12-year relationship soured and turned abusive. It provided a motive, but it was also hearsay.
Sipple's attorney argued self-defense, and therefore an excusable homicide under law.
The jury convicted Sipple of manslaughter and the judge sentenced him to 12 years in prison.
• • •
Life behind bars shocked Sipple. Inmates call the prisons "camps," he explained, as in concentration camps. "I've never been to a place like that in my life," he said.
From his cell, Sipple immediately started filing handwritten appeals. He lost most, won some. "I'm no idiot, but I'm no lawyer either," he said.
Then he enlisted the help of Allen Penoyer, a so-called jailhouse lawyer from Pinellas County. Penoyer, 68, was sentenced to life in prison in 1976 on charges of second-degree murder.
Penoyer, using a blue ballpoint pen and blank sheets of white paper, challenged Sipple's conviction on the grounds that his attorney, Michael Connell, allowed the jury to hear an invalid instruction that negated Sipple's self-defense argument. "He studied it, and sure enough, they violated my rights," Sipple said.
The 5th District Court of Appeal agreed in December and granted Sipple a new trial.
• • •
The victory at the appellate level sent the case back to Hernando.
Sipple wanted the new trial to clear his name. "If they had read the jury instruction properly, I would have been found innocent," he said.
Prosecutors didn't want to go to court. The appeals court rulings precluded them from using the hearsay evidence from Hampshire's friends.
Assistant State Attorney Sherry Byerly negotiated a plea deal to a lesser charge of battery and a five-year administrative probation sentence, the least restrictive method.
"Getting Jeffrey Sipple convicted of anything was better than nothing," she said.
It pained her. "The state is not admitting he didn't commit that crime. … I think it was a just verdict and a just sentence," she said of the original trial.
Reached by phone in North Carolina, Hampshire's mother, Diane, said she didn't want to talk about her daughter's case anymore.
• • •
Starting over is hard. Sipple said he lost four years and he doesn't have many left.
"There's no making up for lost time," he said. "I'm just trying to get reacquainted with my family."
He owes them his life. His appeals would have gone nowhere without his family's financial help.
His brother, Phillip Sipple, 53, spent $25,000 of his own money to hire Kevin Beck with Cohen, Jayson & Foster, a well-known Tampa law firm, to argue the appellate case.
The younger sibling used the money from his divorce settlement; he let his wife keep the house.
"It was a miracle that I just happened to have the money," said Phillip Sipple, who works at Cracker Barrel. "I figured it was family, and they'd probably do it for me.
"He had to have a lawyer to go to court or the judge would have sent him right back to jail," he added. "I didn't want him to die in jail."
His sisters later helped chip in money for bail. "They've always been supportive," Jeffery Sipple said. "I didn't ask them. It was something they did."
The judge allowed Sipple to move to Indiana while on probation. He now lives with his brother outside Indianapolis.
"I'm trying to start over and keep a low profile," he said.
On his way there after his final court appearance in Florida, he stopped to see his daughters from a previous marriage.
As they grew up, he saw them every now and then, but it had been some time.
"I didn't want them to write or me write them while I was in the penitentiary," he said. "I didn't want them to worry."
It's a first step to rebuilding. And he has a long way to go.
"They broke me for every penny I had," he said. "But I never lost faith. I was finally granted justice."
John Frank can be reached at [email protected] or (352) 754-6114.