Jennifer Martin greeted by hugs, cheers as she leaves prison

TAMPA — Jennifer Martin walked out of prison at 10:40 a.m. Wednesday, hugged her father and kissed him on his cheek. She hugged her mother, who didn't appear to want to let go. Then she hugged the prosecutor who helped convict her and then fought for her release.

Martin, 30, who spent the past eight years in prison after her 1998 fatal car accident, is a free woman.

She spoke in a shaky voice as she struggled for the right words in her address to a crowd of waiting reporters.

"I'm not sure I deserve all this attention," she said, "but thank you."

Inmates cheered as Martin walked out, yelling, "We love you, Jen" and "good luck." Reporters and photographers were poised outside the prison to capture the moment, while inmate groundskeepers cheered and yelled from a truck, "Jennifer's free, Jennifer's free!"

"We're so happy today," said Martin's mother, Lynn, as she arrived. Martin's parents brought her clothes, which she changed into before exiting prison.

The prosecutor in Martin's case, Paul Duval Johnson, described his relief.

"With the sentence there was so much pressure," he said. "I always wished there was more I could have done to get into the hearts and minds of the victim's families. It felt like a failure to me. But now it's over."

Martin found out that she received clemency Tuesday after Gov. Charlie Crist commuted her 16-year sentence, a rare move by the governor.

Martin was convicted of manslaughter by culpable negligence after a crash in April 1998. She was speeding on Interstate 4 near Ybor City and lost control of the car. Passenger Josh Nicola, 23, was killed. Another, Scott Schutt, 23, was severely injured. Martin, 18 at the time, had no alcohol in her system.

In April, Alex Sink, Florida's chief financial officer, read an article in the St. Petersburg Times about Martin's case and requested the clemency hearing.

At the hearing Thursday in Tallahassee, prosecutor Johnson said that Martin had not been drinking but that her two passengers were "inebriated" and "chose not to wear their seat belt."

To win release, three of the four clemency board members — Crist, Sink, Agriculture Commissioner Charles Bronson and State Attorney General Bill McCollum — had to vote to release Martin. The vote was unanimous.

Crist, who was in Tampa on part of a multi-city tour signing a rail bill Wednesday, said he was happy to help release Martin just in time for the holidays.

"It was a tragic accident," Crist said. "No question about it. But for her to have an opportunity to come before the clemency board and not have that freedom (before), I'm very happy for her and her family."

Meg Laughlin can be reached at mlaughlin@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8068.

Jennifer Martin greeted by hugs, cheers as she leaves prison 12/16/09 [Last modified: Wednesday, December 16, 2009 9:32pm]

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