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Jennifer Porter denied early end to probation in fatal hit-and-run case

TAMPA — On Thursday, Courtroom 22 looked like 2005 all over again.

Jennifer Porter, a former school dance teacher who fled after killing two children and injuring two others with her car, sat statuelike and stoic.

Lisa Wilkins, the children's mother, sat anguished and angry.

Both women wanted justice, but their definitions weren't the same.

At their previous meeting in the same courtroom four years earlier, Porter learned she wouldn't have to go to prison, a sentence decried by many as too lenient.

This time, Wilkins prayed for a triumph of her own.

She got it when Hillsborough County Judge Tom Barber denied Porter's request to have her probation cut short.

"I think it's perfectly reasonable to expect that she would serve the entire time on probation," Barber said. "In my view, justice deserves such an outcome."

Hearing those words, Wilkins sprang from her seat.

"Ooooh!" she cheered, throwing her arms in the air.

Afterward, inside an elevator, she kissed her 13-year-old daughter, Aquina, on the forehead.

"Smile," Wilkins whispered. "It might not be the best thing, but it worked, huh?"

In March 2004, four of Wilkins' children, ages 2 to 13, were hit by Porter's car as they crossed a dark street. They were returning home from playing at a local community center. Porter was leaving her job as a dance instructor at nearby Muller Elementary School.

The impact killed Bryant Wilkins, 13, and Durontae Caldwell, 3. Aquina Wilkins and LaJuan Davis, then 8 and 2, were seriously injured but survived. Their mother says they suffered memory loss as a result of the accident.

If Porter had stayed at the scene, she likely would not have faced charges. Instead, she drove away and called an attorney instead of authorities.

Prosecutors wanted prison time for Porter, who pleaded guilty to leaving the scene of a crash involving a death. But after hearing evidence about the psychiatric trauma she had endured immediately after the accident, Circuit Judge Emmett Lamar Battles sentenced her to two years of house arrest and three years of probation.

She is now halfway through her probation, the point at which defendants typically are eligible to seek an early termination.

Her request reignited the outcry over her sentence. Protesters gathered outside the courthouse before the hearing, waving signs that said, "No Justice, No Peace." Some activists wore T-shirts calling for tougher laws on hit-and-run drivers.

Concerned about Porter's safety, her legal team got permission from the Sheriff's Office to enter and exit the courthouse through doors not usually accessible to the public.

Porter's attorney, Barry Cohen, said the public clamor should not result in her legal case being treated differently than any other. The judge, too, stressed that the motion at stake was a "relatively routine matter."

Porter, 33, has been a model probationer, Cohen said. She completed 500 hours of community service. She owns her own dance studio and lives with her parents.

"She's got her act together," he said. "She's not like these dregs that come before you day in and day out."

Though the Department of Corrections took an official stance of objecting to Porter's request, her probation officer, James Brett, said she had done everything asked of her.

The Hillsborough State Attorney's Office also objected, given the serious nature of Porter's charge.

"Her break came initially, with no prison," prosecutor Felix Vega said.

Wilkins listened to the court proceedings from the front row with three of her children.

Porter stood just feet away. The two women never spoke or exchanged glances.

Times staff writers Emily Nipps and Kevin Smetana contributed to this report. Colleen Jenkins can be reached at cjenkins@sptimes.com or (813) 226-3337.

Jennifer Porter denied early end to probation in fatal hit-and-run case 05/21/09 [Last modified: Monday, May 25, 2009 5:21pm]
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