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How Florida’s ‘two-strikes’ law leads to life sentences

The cases of four people imprisoned without the chance of parole.
An investigation by The Marshall Project and the Tampa Bay Times shows how a law passed in the 1990s contributes to Florida leading the nation in people serving life prison sentences without the chance of parole
An investigation by The Marshall Project and the Tampa Bay Times shows how a law passed in the 1990s contributes to Florida leading the nation in people serving life prison sentences without the chance of parole
Published Nov. 11
Updated Nov. 12

This article was published in partnership with The Marshall Project, a nonprofit news organization covering the U.S. criminal justice system.

An investigation by The Marshall Project and the Tampa Bay Times shows how a law passed in the 1990s contributes to Florida leading the nation in people serving life prison sentences without the chance of parole, including the case of a St. Petersburg man who was one of the first to be sentenced under the law.

The so-called ‘two-strikes’ law, more formally called the Prison Releasee Reoffender law, results in people getting life sentences for committing crimes within a few years of their release from prison. Often these crimes are robberies, burglaries or thefts in which no one is injured.

Here are four more cases of the law being applied in Florida.

Kenneth Penton

Age: 37

Crime happened near: Pensacola

Offense that sent him to prison for life: burglary with a weapon

Penton was addicted to drugs and served time in prison in his teens for grand theft and burglary. In 2005, he was working for an uncle, and they had a falling out. Penton went to his uncle’s house and took two guns to cover what he said was money he was owed. His uncle, Larry Thomas, reported the break-in. Prosecutors sought life against Penton under the state’s Prison Releasee Reoffender law. “I loved him very much,” Thomas said recently. “I hate it that he got all that time.”

William Jennings

Age: 45

Crime happened near: Fort Pierce

Offense that sent him to prison for life: armed robbery

As a student at the Art Institute of Fort Lauderdale, Jennings became addicted to cocaine. Local media nicknamed him “the gentleman robber” because he asked nicely for money when robbing two motels and a gas station in 1997. No one was injured, and the most he netted was $326. But he’d previously served a year in county jail for robbery, so he got life in prison at age 22. His mother, Audrey Hudgins, said the Prison Releasee Reoffender law “was created out of pure hate,” and wants to change it. “My son’s going to die in prison.”

William Graves

Age: 59

Crime happened near: Daytona Beach

Offense that sent him to prison for life: armed robbery

Police said Graves committed a nighttime robbery in March 2001 in a suburb of Daytona Beach. The case rested largely on the victim’s account. Graves said the victim mistakenly identified him, but a jury found him guilty. He’d been in prison for cocaine possession in the late 1980s and aggravated assault in the mid 1990s. He says he’s innocent in the 2001 robbery, but in challenging his sentence, he has said he would have accepted a plea deal to avoid life in prison.

Christopher Aikens

Age: 51

Crime happened near: St. Petersburg

Offense that sent him to prison for life: armed robbery

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Aikens maintains that witnesses mistakenly identified him as the armed robber at a Burger King in 1998, but police linked him to a car seen driving away from the restaurant. His criminal record included robbery and burglary, so he got life without parole in 2000 under the Prison Releasee Reoffender law and Florida’s other “habitual offender” laws. For two decades, Aikens has filed appeals from prison. In 2002, he got some of the habitual offender designations removed. But recently, an appeals court upheld his life sentence under the Prison Releasee Reoffender law.

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