Jennifer Martin won her deserved freedom this week after serving half of her 16-year sentence for an automobile accident that killed one of her passengers and permanently injured another. The system, for all its imperfections, finally delivered justice in this case.
Martin was 18 and speeding on Interstate 4 near Ybor City in April 1998 when she lost control of the car, killing passenger Josh Nicola, 23, and severely injuring Scott Schutt, 23. She had not been drinking. Neither man was wearing a seat belt.
Her 16-year sentence for manslaughter by culpable negligence fell in the middle of the state sentence guidelines at the time. But former Hillsborough Assistant State Attorney Paul Duval Johnson never felt comfortable that a young person received such a harsh sentence for what was an accident.
Johnson and Florida Chief Financial Officer Alex Sink share credit with several others for addressing Martin's situation. Martin's petition for clemency, filed by her attorneys more than three years ago, was going nowhere until Sink read an April story about the case by the St. Petersburg Times' Meg Laughlin. Sink urged her fellow clemency board members, including the governor and two other Cabinet members, to expedite the hearing held last week. Johnson was the first to testify, and there were no demands by the victims or their families to keep Martin behind bars. Nicola's mother sent a passionate letter recounting the devastation brought on by the accident but did not seek to block Martin's release. The clemency board agreed to commute her sentence, and Martin was released several days later.
By all accounts, Martin was a model prisoner and will return to society and her 9-year-old son as a productive individual. The romantic notion of clemency is that sentences are shortened in recognition of forgiveness, time served and an inmate's rehabilitation. But it is also a vital check on the courts and the Legislature, which sets sentencing guidelines. Martin was adequately punished. And now she is free.