WAUCHULA — He didn't laugh or gloat or skip or yell.
His occasional smile was tempered by tears and a tremor in his voice.
When Jean Claude Meus left the Hardee County Courthouse on Friday, he walked away from eight years of legal wrangling that included prison time and stepped into a future emboldened by freedom and gratitude.
"The system put me in," he said of American criminal justice. "And the system put me back out."
It wasn't so long ago, Meus, 45, was trapped in a Florida prison, destined to serve a 15-year sentence after a jury deliberated for less than an hour and found him guilty of killing two people.
Meus, a Haitian immigrant, had been driving a semitrailer truck filled with tomatoes on the night of May 11, 2001, when he collided with a minivan at a fork in the road known as Seven Mile Point in rural Hardee County.
Nona Moore, 40, of Wauchula and her 8-year-old daughter, Lindsay, died instantly.
Families join forces
Investigators with the Florida Highway Patrol determined Meus was at fault, saying he fell asleep at the wheel. In 2005, an all-white jury agreed and put Meus, a black Haitian immigrant, behind bars.
It was a sentence that Moore's own family couldn't abide.
"We knew from the very beginning that Nona would not want Jean Claude in prison," said Nona Moore's sister, Dana Christenson, on Friday.
Christenson and other relatives joined forces with Meus and his wife, Rebecca Chenoweth, to reverse Meus' fate. They secured the pro bono help of Largo defense lawyer John Trevena. Meus' story was chronicled in newspapers and in reports by Doug Smith of WTVT-Ch. 13.
A new witness came forward, a man named Juan Otero. He was a volunteer firefighter and first responder at the crash, whose testimony contradicted prosecutors' claims that Meus fell asleep at the wheel.
If the jury had heard Otero's testimony during the trial, a judge decided, the outcome could have been different.
Last year, when an appeals court cleared the way for Otero to testify, Hardee County Judge Jeff McKibben granted Meus a new trial. After 31/2 years in prison, Meus was permitted to return to Tennessee with his wife, though he remained under court supervision pending the outcome of the trial.
With little ceremony Friday, all that ended.
Trevena stood before McKibben and summarized the terms of a plea agreement Meus had reached with prosecutors: Meus pleaded no contest to two counts of vehicular homicide. In return, the court would withhold an adjudication of guilty, and Meus would face one day of probationary supervision.
After 24 hours, Meus would be free. Free to drive again. Free to work. Free to go fishing with people who had been instrumental to helping him gain his freedom, but with whom he'd not interacted — like Otero.
No criminal record
"The court is very comfortable with the resolution," McKibben said, before summarizing details about the case that he believed were important to remember.
Meus had no prior criminal record, he said. He had no trace of drugs or alcohol in his system at the time of the crash, he said. He had abided by every restriction imposed on him during the eight-year ordeal.
Then, McKibben referred to Moore family.
"They have long granted Mr. Meus forgiveness," McKibben said, "and now it's time for our system to forgive him as well."
A bailiff handed Meus the passport the court had once removed.
Meus' wife sat on the edge of her seat, simultaneously smiling and crying. She'd had to hold herself back from speeding the whole way from Tennessee to Wauchula for this hearing.
Christenson sat beside her.
Then, the judge continued with praise for the attorneys on both sides: "The conduct before me was a model of how lawyers are supposed to perform."
No use for anger
McKibben turned again to the Moore family and exhorted Meus to draw from their example: "I hope their forgiveness and compassion will lessen your bitterness and allow you to lead a productive life."
When the hearing was over, Meus walked to the prosecutors' table and shook their hands. "Thank you," he said.
He walked to the bailiff and did the same.
He called his attorney "my hero."
When someone asked if he is angry, he said he had no use for anger. Then someone asked him why he decided to take the plea deal instead of another trial.
"It's not fair to the family," Meus said, looking toward Christenson.
"They keep reliving it, and they deserve some healing."
Rebecca Catalanello can be reached at email@example.com or (813) 226-3383.