Sunday, December 17, 2017
Politics

Bousquet: Former football coach's DUI case tests limit of Gov. Scott's mercy

Josh Hunter's fate rests largely in the hands of one man: Gov. Rick Scott.

Hunter, 37, is hardly your typical drunken driver.

He was a popular football coach at Braden River High in Bradenton and a role model for young people.

He went to a party one day in 2009 and had at least 14 drinks, witnesses said. He got into his pickup and crashed on a curve, taking the life of Doug Garrity, his best friend and an assistant coach.

Hunter's blood-alcohol level of 0.21 was nearly three times the level at which Florida presumes impairment.

The minimum sentence for DUI manslaughter is about four years; Hunter got 10 and has served more than three years, earning a certification as a forklift operator at a prison in Avon Park. He's due for release in late 2020.

Now he seeks mercy from the state, with the rare and highly moving support of the parents of his victim. John and Dehlia Garrity want Hunter's sentence commuted to four years, and say the prosecutor in the case disregarded their pleas at trial that Hunter receive the minimum mandatory sentence.

"I know my son and what he would want," said Dehlia Garrity at a clemency hearing in Tallahassee last week. She has taught elementary school in Bradenton for 27 years.

She said Josh Hunter "is like a son to me" and "has the potential to do so much good. I saw him transform my son to a man with determination and perseverance.

"I know that time in prison would be a waste for him," she said.

Also pleading for a shorter sentence for Hunter was state Rep. Greg Steube, R-Sarasota, a buddy of Hunter's from high school, as well as a lawyer and decorated U.S. Army veteran who served in Iraq. "You know I would not be up here if it wasn't the right thing to do," Steube said. "There's no real purpose for him where he's at now."

Steube said Hunter belongs back in the community, lecturing young people on the dangers of drinking and driving.

The Florida Parole Commission recommended that Hunter's sentence be reduced, but details of its report are secret.

Scott and the three Cabinet members considered his case for a half-hour last week. But the governor, whose vote has more weight than the others, took it "under advisement," meaning he rendered no decision and didn't say when he would rule.

In more than three years as governor, Scott has voted to commute a sentence just once, for a drug trafficker. In the previous four years, under Gov. Charlie Crist and a different Cabinet, sentences were commuted 13 times.

Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam said he could not recall another case with such compelling testimony from victims. He suggested he could support mercy for Hunter if it included a lot of probation and "robust" community service terms.

"You're very compassionate," Attorney General Pam Bondi told the Garritys.

The case is politically sensitive, and it's an election year. The governor must be on the prevailing side of any clemency vote. Scott, who is a lawyer, asked why Hunter did not testify at his trial.

"Advice of counsel," said Hunter's wife, Ann, who also is his attorney. "It was not a matter of not taking responsibility."

"You're asking us to take a position different from what the court system took," Scott replied.

Contact Steve Bousquet at [email protected] or (850) 224-7263.

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