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December 16, 2009

Reduced prison sentence in Florida reveals that clemency is not completely dead

Especially in the wake of all the bad press that the concept of clemency has received after the horrible crimes of Maurice Clemens, I am pleased to see this notable new clemency story out of Florida.  Here are the details:

Today, Jennifer Martin will be free. Martin was sentenced to 16 years behind bars after being convicted of manslaughter.  She has already served eight years, but a four-person clemency board that includes Gov. Charlie Crist has agreed to cut her sentence in half.

In 1998, Martin was hanging out in Ybor City one night. She met two guys named Josh Nicola and Scott Schutt. According to the prosecutor, Paul Duval Johnson, both of the men had blood alcohol levels above the legal limit. Martin did not have any alcohol in her system. So she offered to give the two men a ride.

While driving on Interstate 4, she lost control of her car and crashed. According to Johnson, she was traveling at least 80 miles an hour in a 55-mile-an-hour construction zone. None of the people in the car were wearing seatbelts.  The crash killed Nicola and severely injured Schutt. Martin suffered only minor injuries.

Johnson was able to prove to a jury that Martin had "a reckless disregard for life" that night. She was convicted of manslaughter. According to Johnson, sentencing guidelines dictated a sentence of 12-20 years. The judge gave her 16 years.

The sentencing did not sit well with Johnson. "It's just a case that from the very on-set, because of the facts, I felt deserved mercy," Johnson said.

The victim's family disagreed. They felt Martin deserved the 16-year sentence. They would not budge when Johnson pushed them to ask for a more lenient sentence. "I've prosecuted people for life terms and people serving much longer than Jennifer Martin's (sentence) and I'm OK with it," Johnson said. "Jennifer Martin's sentence, I lost sleep over."

The state's chief financial officer, Alex Sink, heard about Martin's situation and helped her case get put in front of the four-person clemency board that includes Sink and Gov. Crist.

Johnson and Martin's attorneys made her case in front of the board. On a unanimous vote, the board agreed to cut Martin's sentence in half. She would not have to serve the second half of her 16-year sentence.

I am especially pleased to hear about a case in which a prosecutor recognized, and actively worked to rectify, a sentence that he helped to secure but concluded was too long.

December 16, 2009 at 05:41 PM | Permalink

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Comments

If we let the victim's families render justice then it is not justice. Otherwise, let me go kill the guy that ran over my kid.

Simple justice means keeping the victims out of justice.

How does that rankle with the folks on the blog?


Posted by: mpb | Dec 17, 2009 3:07:45 AM

Simple justice means giving the victims a respectful hearing, cf. Payne v. Tennessee, 501 U.S. 808 (1991), but not the ultimate decision, since the commission of a crime is an offense against the state, not the individual.

Posted by: Bill Otis | Dec 17, 2009 9:36:30 AM

Hmm...the prosecutor didn't mind wasting the state's resources to bring this case, but then lost sleep over the consequences of his actions. I'll bet the other victim (the woman whose life he ruined, by putting her in prison) lost a ton more sleep than he did.

Posted by: Marc Shepherd | Dec 17, 2009 9:41:44 AM

8 years seems pretty harsh for what was only an accident. Shame that the two guys weren't wearing seatbelts.

"Otherwise, let me go kill the guy that ran over my kid." Why would you want to if it's not intentional?

Posted by: federalist | Dec 17, 2009 10:04:32 AM

Either there is much more to this story (in terms of evidence of serious reckless driving, etc.) or wtf is this doing in a criminal court? 80 in a 55 is fast, and may be de facto reckless driving for the purpose of a speeding ticket, but tens of thousands of people do 80 in a 55 every day. I don't see how that in and of itself could provide a mens rea for criminal homicide.

Posted by: Anon | Dec 17, 2009 10:25:37 AM

Marc Shepherd --

I don't know all the details of this case, but it seems from those reported that there was easily enough reckless indifference (25 over the limit, at night, in a construction zone) to bring the case before a jury. Thus I do not agree that it was a "waste." A man was killed in this wreck. As a prosecutor, you don't, in those circumstances, just go out and have a cup of coffee. And juries do not return manslaughter convictions for episodes that are JUST accidents.

As to sentencing: Prosecutors don't impose sentences; judges do. This prosecutor, seeing a sentence he thought was too long, did the right thing. Why condemn him for it?

Posted by: Bill Otis | Dec 17, 2009 10:35:22 AM

Perhaps Bill Otis is right. The issue is not that this degree of recklessness cannot support some criminal charge/conviction. The issue is that 16 years seems an excessively harsh sentence for a car accident of this type (barring some aggravating factor not present in the media coverage I have seen).

Posted by: Anon | Dec 17, 2009 10:40:57 AM

I agree with Bill Otis that the driver's behavior was sufficiently reckless to merit some sort of sanction, though far less than the one actually imposed. Even the eight years she eventually served was far too much. Prosecution is discretionary, and prosecutors bring cases knowing the range of available sentences — the potential consequences of their actions.

To bring this case and then say, "Oh, but I never intended that she would be sentenced to 16 years" is like the defendant saying, "Oh, but I never intended that anyone would die." The defendant contemplated the consequences of her error from inside a cage, the prosecutor from the comfort of his own home.

It's wonderful to hear that this one defendant got the benefit of a second look at her sentence, although it took far too long. That happens in maybe one out of a hundred such cases.

(Let me add that I am assuming that there are no aggravating facts omitted from the article that would paint the defendant in a harsher light. Prosecutors, as a general rule, are not prone to lose sleep over the sentences given to those they go after, so this must not have been a borderline case.)

Posted by: Marc Shepherd | Dec 17, 2009 1:45:35 PM

I also thought eight years was quite a bit. I suspect there's something here we're not seeing.

Just as an aside: When I was a prosecutor, I didn't lose sleep over a whole lot, including cases I lost that possibly could have been won. The reason for this is that a prosecutor has to understand that he is one actor in the system. There are a bunch of others: judge, jurors, witnesses, defense counsel, the case agent, the probation officer and the defendant. A prosecutor has considerable power to be sure, but if he thinks he alone tells the tale, he's fooling himself. Litigation is just more complicated than that.

Posted by: Bill Otis | Dec 17, 2009 3:50:55 PM

TELL ME IF MY SON DESERVES TO SIT IN PRISON ON A TEN YEAR SENTENCE FOR FIRST PROTECTING ME AND THEN DEFENDING HIMSELF FROM A TWO TIME CONVICTED STALKER, HE WAS MORE OR LESS FORCED INTO A PLEA DEAL CAUSE THEY WERE NOT GOING TO LET THE JURY HEAR HIS CRIMINAL HISTORY AND THAT HE HAD SERVED THREE YEARS IN PRISON FOR DOING THE SAME THING TO ANOTHER FAMILY HERE IS THE ST.PETE TIMES STORY CLICK TO READ,http://www.tampabay.com/features/humaninterest/article1009697.ece JUST A MOM TRYING TO HELP MY SON GET A REDUCED SENTENCE

Posted by: BERAE | Jan 26, 2010 4:57:38 PM

80 MPH is reckless, especially after carousing all night. So that part should be penalized through loss of driving privildge. The two men agreed to be driven home and they could have choose a taxi (like my son currently does, age 31) or chose the consequences that might occur putting their lives in the hands of someone else. If they were sobber would that have made a difference? I have a son in jail right now for ransacking a home when nobody was there, all items were recovered, and the other three accomplices were not prosecuted (state attorney only went after my son where he had direct evidence). He recieved 8 years!!!(He was age 20) This, likewise, was rediculous!!! He was two credits from his HS degree and an ESE student. The state attorney would not agree to tri him as a juvenile and pressed for the full boat as an adult (even though a physc exam by the court showed his maturity level to be below this average age).

Posted by: Macplan | Feb 8, 2010 4:56:07 PM

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