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Governor and Cabinet cut prison sentences for two in rare clemency action

Published Jun. 24, 2015

TALLAHASSEE — In an uncommon demonstration of mercy, Gov. Rick Scott and the Florida Cabinet agreed Wednesday to reduce the sentences of two men in prison, including one who had faced a life sentence for his role in a grisly murder in Pensacola more than a decade ago.

In the other case, Scott cut the sentence of a popular former football coach in Manatee County, who was sentenced to 10 years in prison for DUI manslaughter when the truck he was driving in flipped over killing his friend in 2009.

Since being elected in 2010, Scott, in his role on the state clemency board, had only agreed to commute one sentence before Wednesday. By comparison, former governors Charlie Crist and Jeb Bush reduced sentences 13 times and 22 times, respectively, according to Reggie Garcia, a Tallahassee attorney who has handled clemency cases in Florida for more than 20 years.

Scott said that the two cases presented to him on Wednesday illustrate why there is a process to reduce sentences charged to him and the Cabinet.

"Clemency is an opportunity to temper justice with mercy," Scott said.

Scott and the Cabinet reduced Ryan Holle's sentence from life in prison to 25 years behind bars and 10 years on probation for his role in a murder of an 18-year-old Pensacola woman in 2003. Holle, then 21, after a night of drinking loaned his car to friends who burglarized a house looking for cash and marijuana in a safe. During the break in, Jessica Snyder was beaten to death with a shotgun. All four other men involved in the crime are serving life sentences.

Even though Holle was not at the murder scene, he was prosecuted under Florida's felony murder rule that holds all participants responsible for a death during commission of a felony.

In granting the reduced sentence, Scott said Holle still bears responsibility for his role in Snyder's death, but he should not have the same sentence as Charles Miller, the man who admitted to beating Snyder.

"I believe that the purpose of commutations is to undo such obviously inequitable results," Scott said. "Because Ryan Holle's responsibility for Jessica's death is clearly less than Miller's, I believe his sentence should likewise be less."

All four members of the clemency board supported the reduction. Besides Scott, the clemency board includes Attorney General Pam Bondi, Chief Financial Officer Jeff Atwater and Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam. All are Republicans.

Scott has more weight in clemency board hearings than the other members. No sentence reduction can happen without Scott recommending it. Two others must agree.

The reduction in Holle's sentence was adamantly opposed by Snyder's family during a clemency board hearing in December.

In the other sentence reduced Wednesday, Scott said he was swayed by powerful testimony last year by the family of Doug Garrity, who was killed in the 2009 truck crash. Though they lost their son, Garrity's parents pleaded with the governor and Cabinet to reduce Josh Hunter's 10-year sentence.

"It is rare to see a victim's family advocating for a man responsible for the death of their son," Scott said.

Hunter was a popular football coach at Braden River High in Bradenton in 2009. Witnesses say he had at least 14 drinks at a party when he got behind the wheel of his pickup truck with Garrity, one of Hunter's assistant coaches, as his passenger.

The minimum sentence for DUI manslaughter is four years, but Hunter was sentenced to 10 years. Scott said Hunter deserved a prison sentence, but said he could be valuable to the community by talking to young people about his crime.

Scott proposed Hunter's sentence be dropped to seven years in prison, one year on house arrest and seven years of probation. Scott and the Cabinet also ordered Hunter to talk to young people about drinking and driving as part of more than 1,000 hours of community service.

The board agreed on a 3-1 vote. Atwater opposed the reduction.

Contact Jeremy Wallace at jwallace@tampabay.com or (850) 224-7263. Follow @jeremyswallace.

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