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Driver gets prison term for DUI-manslaughter

Jimmy Hitchcock's family said they knew what kind of punishment he would have wanted for the young woman who killed him.

They knew Hitchcock was compassionate and kind. They knew he wouldn't want to ruin a young person's life with a long prison sentence. But they also knew he believed in consequences.

Hitchcock, 81, was killed last summer when he was struck by a car as he crossed Keene Road. The driver, 27-year-old Jennifer Butler, had a blood-alcohol count more than twice the threshold at which the state presumes impairment.

Butler pleaded guilty to DUI-manslaughter last month. She faced at least 10 years in prison, though her attorney hoped to persuade Judge Phil Federico to give her house arrest and probation.

At Butler's sentencing Friday, Hitchcock's family said he would have thought a shorter term was appropriate.

"I can tell you exactly what Daddy would say," said Ann Marie Kennedy, Hitchcock's daughter. "She needs to serve prison time for two to three years. If she doesn't, it's not fair."

Federico sentenced Butler to three years in prison, followed by 12 years of probation. Butler also must serve 100 hours annually of community service, speak to groups about drinking and driving and pay $100 per year to charity in Hitchcock's name. She also lost her driver's license for life.

Federico's sentence capped an emotional hearing in which Butler's family begged for mercy. As they told stories about Butler's good deeds, she sat at the defense table, shaking and crying.

"A piece of her died that night, too," said her dad, Eugene Butler.

Jennifer Butler had lived in Florida about two years when she decided last summer to move back to New York to be closer to her family. She had worked for an assisted living facility in Pinellas County, where co-workers said she organized holiday parties for the residents.

She planned to leave for New York on Aug. 22, 2003. The night before, she went to the Old New York New York night club in Clearwater to celebrate.

She had some drinks, then borrowed a friend's car to go home. At about 8 p.m., she was driving south on Keene Road in Largo.

Earlier that night, Mary Hitchcock had asked her husband, Jimmy, to go to the grocery store, where he bought ham and cheese, sugar and a six-pack of beer. He placed the items in a shopping cart, which he pushed home so he would be more visible to traffic, his family said.

He stepped onto Keene Road, and nearly made it across the road when Butler hit him. He landed near the sidewalk and was killed.

Butler believed she had only hit a shopping cart and kept driving. When another motorist told her she had hit a person, she returned to the scene. She voluntarily gave a blood sample to police, which showed she was too intoxicated to safely drive.

Butler bailed out of jail and returned to New York after her arrest, working as a receptionist for a boat seller. Her family said she never went out and often stayed up late thinking about the accident.

Back in Largo, Hitchcock's wife of 63 years, who uses an oxygen tank to help her breathe, blamed herself for sending him to the store that night.

Family members said Hitchcock lived a fascinating life, including a stint on a minesweeper for the Navy. At various points, he was a boxer, a lumberjack and a welder.

He worked part-time as a shoe shiner at the Belleair Country Club until he stopped to spend more time with his wife.

At 81, Hitchcock's hair was still brown, his impressive blue eyes still alert.

"My dad was strong," his daughter said in court. "My dad was not a frail old man."

But sometimes his granddaughter, Angela Kennedy, can only picture him in his casket, where his head injuries were apparent.

"He was cheated out of the end of his life with us," she said. "Does an 81-year-old man deserve to die like that? Does anyone?"

Still, the family was grateful Butler didn't flee the crash and that she pleaded guilty. They also appreciated that she agreed to pay about $12,000 for funeral and burial expenses.

Butler also spoke, apologizing for the crash and pleading for a sentence without prison time.

"I will never be able to give back what I took from you, and living with that is overpowering," she said, later adding: "I am a compassionate human being who will serve no purpose in jail. I don't want to go to prison. I'm not a criminal."

But Federico said there must be stiff consequences for drinking and driving.

"She made the decision to get behind the wheel," he said. "It just didn't jump up and happen."