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Clemency hearings heavy with alcohol and remorse

Ten years have passed since that night on the Howard Frankland Bridge when two innocent people were mowed down by a drunken driver. But the pain never ends.

Kristen Fagerlund, who had just regained her license from a previous DUI, was going 89 mph when she struck a car in the emergency lane, killing Alfonza Bradberry and Sheila Davis of St. Petersburg.

In Tallahassee on Thursday, Fagerlund's mother stood before Gov. Charlie Crist and the Cabinet. She pleaded for mercy for her 38-year-old daughter, who has served 10 years of a 21-year sentence.

"Kristen has already paid a huge price for making the wrong choice 10 years ago," she said, fighting back tears. "Please give us our daughter back."

No, said Crist and the Cabinet, sitting as the Board of Executive Clemency, after a victims' advocate read a letter from Sheila Davis' family. "We pray that you say no," the letter said.

Four times a year, Crist and Attorney General Bill McCollum, Chief Financial Officer Alex Sink and Agriculture Commissioner Charles Bronson sit in judgment of Floridians who have made terrible mistakes and seek forgiveness — a pardon, a commuted sentence, the right to carry a gun. The proverbial clemency case involves the guy with a streak of violence in his past who just wants firearm authority "so I can go hunting with my grandson."

The four officials have the power to grant mercy, as long as the governor votes on the prevailing side. They can release people from prison, or wipe away felony convictions. They often refuse when the victims' families object.

It's a pathetic scene as people, their heads bowed in humiliation, atone for their sins in a room filled with strangers, a bank of TV cameras lining a side of the room. It's also a highly instructive lesson in life itself, not just civics.

The clemency gears in Florida move agonizingly slowly and will likely move even slower, now that the Legislature has cut the Parole Commission's budget by 20 percent for a loss of 24 positions, nine of which are assigned full time to clemency cases. The snail's pace underscores how long the trauma endures in each human tragedy.

Thursday's parade of mercy seekers included a courtly, white-haired man from Broward County whose son struck him in a flash of anger seven years ago, giving the son a conviction for elderly abuse, a felony in Florida. The dad, a Harvard-educated trial lawyer, spoke eloquently about his son's bipolar disorder. Pardon granted.

There was the father from Daytona Beach who can't rebuild his life because of one 1993 act ("shameful and disgusting" by his own admission) in which he exposed himself to a teenage girl, and is registered as a sex offender. (Pardon denied). His wife walked away sobbing uncontrollably.

What was most striking about Thursday's clemency hearing was how many cases involved alcohol. An hour of testimony should be mandatory for anyone who tempts fate by driving drunk, because the scars left by drunken drivers never heal.

Well, almost never.

Eddie Joe Anderson, living in a Panhandle prison work camp, won a pardon for a 1999 crash in Bradenton that resulted in four counts of driving under the influence causing serious bodily injury. His victims — five members of a family struck head-on by Anderson's car, including a boy of 9 then — said they supported Anderson's release.

So after serving nine years of a 17-year sentence, Anderson is free at age 34. His lawyer, Joe Bodiford of Tampa, said Anderson is remorseful and rehabilitated and will move to West Virginia to live with the 10-year-old son who doesn't know him.

"Justice has been served," Bodiford told Crist. "If he messes up again, send him back. Innocent people should not be hurt by alcohol."

Steve Bousquet can be reached at bousquet@sptimes.com or (850) 224-7263.

Clemency hearings heavy with alcohol and remorse 06/06/08 [Last modified: Tuesday, June 10, 2008 5:50pm]
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