She wore a beige pantsuit. He wore prison blues. No photographers were allowed in the small, white chapel in the middle of the yard at Polk County Correctional Institution. If Cornelius Marion ever gets out, renewing their vows is one of the first things they'll do, his wife, Latoya, 33, said. This time with pictures.
The couple have been married 14 years. In the beginning, Latoya was filled with questions:
Would her family ever understand her choice? Could they consummate the marriage?
And why had God allowed her to love a man behind bars?
Then two years ago, she discovered what appeared to be a mistake in Marion's case, the possibility that his sentence was extended to life by crimes committed by another man.
Perhaps this injustice had brought them together.
"It's no coincidence," said Marion, 40, now in his 22nd year in prison.
He described a life that is fairly normal, other than his inability to leave. He plays basketball, works in the dental office and reads. He even had girlfriends before Latoya came along.
But Latoya stuck.
"I tried to push her away," he admitted with a smile. "But she said 'I'm not going anywhere.' "
• • •
Charged with several counts of auto theft, Marion signed a plea deal in 1988. He served 14 months. When he was convicted later of armed robbery, the judge included the car theft charges to calculate his sentence. The 19-year-old received life in prison.
Latoya, meanwhile, was growing up in a middle-class family in Gainesville. Fascinated by justice and civil rights, she chose that as her field of study when she entered Santa Fe Community College in Gainesville in 1996.
She was 19 when her priorities changed abruptly. A cousin had died, leaving children behind. "I looked at it like if I die, I ain't done nothing," she said. "No kids, ain't been married — nothing."
She asked a friend to hook her up with a guy. The friend had a cousin with green eyes and another cousin with brown, she told Latoya.
Latoya picked the brown-eyed one. But there was a catch, the friend told her: He was serving three years in prison.
Raised among teachers and nurses, Latoya had scoffed at women who carried on romances with men behind bars. "I always thought, 'What can he do for you? He's in prison!' " she said.
Still, she paid Marion a visit. He did have big brown eyes. He was basketball player tall. But he was doing life, not three years.
"Who did you murder?" Latoya asked him.
No one, he said. The judge had thrown the book at him.
In an exchange of letters, Latoya learned that Marion had endured a rough childhood in Progress Village. To survive, he said, he had stolen. And despite his life sentence, he did not believe he'd stay incarcerated forever. He dreamed of moving to Texas and getting married.
Six months after they met, Marion jokingly asked Latoya what she would say if he asked her to marry him. She'd say yes, she told him.
"I was in love with him because I felt like he needed to be loved," she said. "And I needed to be loved."
And, she added, "at 19 you feel like you can escape from everything and anything is possible. Reality isn't reality to you."
• • •
Marriages like the Marions' are not all that unusual. The Florida Department of Corrections chaplaincy services reports performing 1,973 inmate marriages since 2001.
Reasons for attraction run the gamut. Some seek the notoriety that comes from being associated with a high profile criminal. Erik and Lyle Menendez, convicted of killing their parents in 1989, both wed while behind bars.
Others have a penchant for bad boys, said Mike Aamodt, who teaches forensic psychology at Radford University. "But then there are women involved because they get something from it," he said. "It could be a matter of thinking someone's innocent and thinking if they stand by someone they can save them — it gives them purpose."
Latoya Marion, who lives in Tampa, appeared on Prison Wives, a Wednesday night cable TV show dedicated to the issue.
"We thought this was really a topic that hadn't been covered before," said Sara Kozak, head of production for Investigation Discovery. "Extraordinary relationships that survive some of the harshest possible conditions."
• • •
Being a prison wife is not cheap. There are weekend visits, phone bills and trips to the canteen. Latoya dropped out of college and began working. She fulfilled her passion for law by looking into Marion's case.
Her first step was to ask for information on each of his cases. Clerks could provide files on all but one — charge 11746.
"This is on his score sheet, ya'll should have a case on it," Latoya argued.
Finally in 2008, the clerks provided a certified letter stating that to their knowledge the case belonged to another man and the charges had been dropped.
That other man also had the name Cornelius Marion.
Latoya hired a lawyer.
That October, attorney Joe Caimano filed a motion to vacate Cornelius' plea.
"No one reviewed any of the evidence at the time of his plea, so he was given ineffective council," Caimano said. "The fact that there was another Cornelius Marion, who was actually arrested, at least is something that should be looked into."
Without the charge, Marion would have been eligible for a 20-year sentence based on his other crimes, according to the point system then employed by the courts, Caimano said.
Andy Steingold, the prosecutor on Marion's armed robbery case, has written three letters in support of Marion's plight. But he falls just short of saying Marion should be released.
"Who's to say that Marion didn't do it?" said Steingold, who now practices privately. "Just because the cops booked someone or arrested someone doesn't mean they did anything."
Stuart Sheres, Marion's public defender during that time, said he had no reason to think the state's information was wrong.
"Do I feel bad now? 'Sure,'" said Sheres, now an assistant state attorney. "You don't want to see someone punished for something they didn't do."
Caimano has an uphill battle, as state law gives attorneys only two years to bring forward evidence that is not newly discovered, he said.
Still, he said, if the plea is vacated and the sentence corrected, "he will be eligible to get out relatively soon if not immediately."
• • •
Latoya can tell when Cornelius hasn't paid attention to his case. At a recent hearing he wasn't able to answer the judge logically. The couple spent the evening arguing on the phone.
"I get mad at him because he hates law," Latoya said, and tears filled her eyes. "I say, "why won't you master the thing that has you in bondage?' "
He would rather play basketball, she said, despite all her sacrifices.
In these dark moments, Latoya said, she relies on her faith. "I just pray about it and thank God for binding us together as one."
Nicole Hutcheson can be reached at email@example.com or (813)226-3405.
This story has been changed to reflect the following correction: Latoya Marion, of Tampa, is married to Cornelius Marion who is serving a life sentence in prison. Her name was misspelled in a story Sunday.