Joyce Soto stood before a Tampa judge Monday and told him how scared, stressed and depressed she has been since a neighbor slashed her throat with a broken bottle two years ago.
"I am not the same person I was before that day," Soto said, her voice filled with anger. "She stood there that day after she cut me, and laughed."
Despite the fact that a jury convicted the neighbor, Lisa Dukes, of a felony in the attack, the judge decided Dukes deserved no time behind bars and shouldn't even have the conviction on her record. Some jurors in the case were stunned.
Prosecutors say Dukes, 30, attacked Soto, 27, at their Brandon apartment complex in May 2002, slicing her throat nearly from ear to ear and leaving her bleeding on the ground amid her four young children.
A jury rejected Dukes' claim of self-defense at her trial last month, deliberating less than an hour before finding her guilty of aggravated battery with great bodily harm involving a weapon.
A prosecutor asked that Dukes serve 10 years in prison.
On Monday, however, Hillsborough Circuit Judge Ralph Stoddard sentenced Dukes to seven years' probation and withheld adjudication on the charge. In doing so, the judge gave the victim a stern dressing down.
He told her she had played a role in the fight that led to her being cut. He told her that her demeanor in the courtroom did not look like that of a victim, but of someone "using the system to continue the fight." He told her, further, that she was exaggerating her suffering and that her scar was not visible.
"He did not give justice," Soto said through tears after the sentencing. "It was like I was on trial, like I was the one who committed the freaking crime."
After more than two years, Soto's scar remains visible when she lifts her chin.
Prosecutors said the confrontation between Dukes and Soto began with Dukes' son bullying Soto's young son. Dukes grew angry when her son told her that Soto had manhandled him, though Soto insisted she had not touched the boy.
Assistant Public Defender Ann Shane argued that Soto had participated in the incident by attacking Dukes' son. "Ms. Soto does not come into this courtroom with total clean hands," Shane said.
However, prosecutor Katalin Lazzara said Dukes had shown no remorse. She said the notion that Soto instigated the attack was "ludicrous," arguing that Dukes hid the broken bottle as she approached Soto and lashed out without warning.
"Did she ever once think to call for help for Ms. Soto?" Lazzara said.
The aggravated battery charge, a first-degree felony, carried a maximum of 30 years in prison. Sentencing guidelines called for Dukes to serve four years. Judge Stoddard departed from the guidelines, ruling that Dukes had shown remorse and had attacked Soto in an unsophisticated manner, and that Soto played a role in the fight. The judge also noted that Dukes was working as a nurse's assistant and raising young children.
Some of the jurors who convicted Dukes expressed surprise and dismay at the light sentence.
"(Dukes) went with a weapon," said juror Shirley Swift. "She came to hurt. Ms. Soto was standing there. She wasn't instigating anything."
Swift remembered a lot of blood in the crime scene photos. "The amount of blood we saw, I would think I was dying," Swift said. "I think (Dukes) should have gotten something, instead of getting off almost scot-free."
Juror Steve Dixon said Stoddard's ruling Monday left him stunned. He said there was no doubt among jurors that Dukes was guilty, and pointed to testimony that she had grabbed the bottle some yards away as she approached to attack.
"We felt that she was the aggressor there," Dixon said. "I think she should have done some time. We live in a civil society. What if it had been a gun, and she pulled it out and just grazed her?"
Whatever may have precipitated the confrontation, Dixon said, Dukes elevated it by introducing a broken bottle. Nor did he see any remorse in Dukes, he said, pointing to how she laughed over the bleeding Soto. "That's just really cold," he said.
Dixon said he was amazed that the crime would not appear on Dukes' record. "What if it happens again?" he said.
Juror Joseph Portillo, however, said he was not surprised that Dukes got probation. He said Soto should have behaved more diplomatically when she confronted Dukes' son about bullying her own son.
"None of us felt she actually manhandled the child," Portillo said. "She may have screamed at the child."
Judge Stoddard refused to discuss his ruling with the Times, saying he was prohibited by judicial canons. Stoddard has been a judge on the Hillsborough Circuit bench since 1997, previously serving the Plant City Courthouse.
Stoddard has been serving his first assignment on the criminal bench since July.
Christopher Goffard can be reached at (813) 226-3337 or goffardsptimes.com.