1. Florida Politics

Florida man freed from prison early — underage romance led to 'sex offender' tag, harsh sentence

TALLAHASSEE — Carlos Manuel Delgado was released from Columbia Correctional Institution in Lake City on Wednesday afternoon — 13 years, 4 months and 24 days before the end of his sentence.

Or, from the perspective of Republican Gov. Rick Scott and members of the Florida Cabinet: Delgado spent 11 years, 2 months and 17 days in prison because of what they call a miscarriage of justice that branded Delgado a "sex offender" for an atypical crime.

Florida's top elected officials voted Tuesday to commute Delgado's sentence and allow him to go free. This is only the fourth sentence commuted in the last five years, according to state records.

They described his case as an unjust consequence of a "stupid decision" and "mistake" Delgado made in 2000 that didn't align with the truly abhorrent crimes that Florida's sex offender laws are intended to punish.

Absorbing his first taste of freedom in more than a decade, Delgado on Wednesday afternoon was still trying to take in his changed circumstances.

"From the point that the police came to get me, it was surreal," he told the Times/Herald in a phone interview. "It's been really crazy. It's been super unbelievable."

Sixteen years ago, Delgado and Katie Hansen became friends and had a mutual sexual relationship.

He was 20. She was 15, but she'd lied about her age, telling Delgado she was 17.

Hansen got pregnant — which revealed their affair and yielded criminal charges against Delgado for having sex with a minor.

Delgado was convicted on four counts of "lewd, lascivious or indecent act upon a child," but a Brevard County judge granted leniency. He withheld adjudication and put Delgado on 10 years' probation.

The punishment wasn't absent the stigma of the crime.

"They tried to live together as a family after the baby was born, but he'd been labeled as a sex offender," said his attorney Sharon Kegerreis of Miami. "There were posters in the neighborhood, and he had difficulties finding any job except at a fast-food restaurant."

"I was too young and my head wasn't in the right place," said Delgado, now 37. "I got off track, I was out of control."

In 2004, Delgado was busted for cocaine possession in Miami-Dade County, triggering a probation violation on his previous conviction.

A new Brevard County judge revisited his earlier case and wasn't so merciful, even though Hansen — the victim — pleaded for the judge to go easy on Delgado.

The judge sentenced him to serve more than 27 years in prison — more than five times the sentence that would have been imposed if Delgado hadn't had the sex offense on his record.

"I knew I was wrong, but I thought each individual judge would look at the case on its own merits," Delgado said. "The guy did some numerical calculation, and said, 'This is what the paper says, so that's what I'm going to give you.' … That was a perversion of justice."

Delgado's father, Gonzalo — with help from Hansen and other family members — fought for more than a decade to get Delgado free, petitioning twice for clemency.

Kegerreis said the first petition was deemed ineligible because it sat stagnant so long that Florida's rules changed in the interim. The second took two years to process, culminating in the decision by Scott and the Cabinet this week.

Delgado was supposed to be free four weeks ago, but Scott and the Cabinet — which also serve as the state Executive Clemency Board — had to haggle over the terms of Delgado's release to ensure they were legal.

All four board members — Scott, Attorney General Pam Bondi, Chief Financial Officer Jeff Atwater and Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam — supported giving Delgado his freedom.

They also want the stigma of "sex offender" lifted. But the only way to do that is through a full pardon.

Putnam supported that option.

"I would support an immediate pardon so he can move on with his life without the stigma of a sex offender and count on his family to keep him out of trouble," Putnam said.

But Bondi and the others said they didn't want Delgado to have no safety net as he rejoined society after so much time away.

"We're letting him out 14 years early. That's why I believe in re-entry programs because we don't want to set someone up to fail," Bondi said. "I do believe firmly he needs some conditions."

The board ultimately agreed to give him a conditional release: six months of house arrest and six months of probation, among other terms.

If Delgado has no violations one year from now, Scott and the Cabinet said they intend to grant a full pardon — wiping clean Delgado's past crime and affording Delgado the chance to be removed from the state's sex offender registry.

"They showed a great deal of compassion and humanity," said Kegerreis, Delgado's attorney. "I think this case really shows the need for reform in a lot of the criminal justice system, so that you have a system of laws but you need to have laws that fit the facts."

Delgado still faces obstacles now that he's out of prison.

He said he has a job lined up at his father's avionics company in Brevard County, but his living situation isn't ideal.

Gonzalo Delgado had wanted his son to live with him, so he could support Carlos as much as possible in transitioning back to the real world.

But Gonzalo Delgado's home is within 1,000 feet of a shuffleboard court — putting it in a restricted location where registered sex offenders can't live, based on Brevard County's local laws. Kegerreis and Gonzalo Delgado said they'll work through the complication, so that Carlos Delgado doesn't have to make a discount motel in Melbourne his permanent home while on house arrest.

For his part, Carlos Delgado's first priority is the daughter he shares with Hansen. Angelina was about 4 when her father went to prison. She's now 16.

"My biggest goal right now is to get to meet my daughter again and for us to get to know each other again," he said. "I want to get this behind me and just move forward."

Delgado also has a message for Scott, Bondi, Atwater and Putnam: "Thank you for letting common sense and justice prevail. Thank you for giving me another chance at my life."

Contact Kristen M. Clark at Follow @ByKristenMClark.