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Hit and run

Judicial newcomer takes lead in hit-run case

Hillsborough Circuit Judge Anthony Black is assigned to preside over the matter.

By CHRISTOPHER GOFFARD
Published May 12, 2004

TAMPA - The criminal case against Jennifer Porter, the elementary school teacher implicated in a fatal hit-and-run accident, has been assigned to Hillsborough Circuit Judge Anthony Black, a relative newcomer to the bench.

Black was assigned the case by random rotation, after the Hillsborough State Attorney's Office filed a criminal information against Porter late Monday.

As expected, 28-year-old Porter will face a single count of leaving the scene of an accident involving death, a second-degree felony that could bring her 22 months to 15 years in prison if she is convicted.

The charge stems from a March 31 crash on N 22nd Street that killed Bryant Wilkins, 13, and his 3-year-old brother, Durontae Caldwell. It also injured Aquina Wilkins, 8, and her brother LaJuan Davis, 2.

Porter has admitted that she was the driver of a Toyota Echo involved in the crash, but she has not spoken to investigators about her exact role. Authorities have said the Toyota was northbound on N 22nd Street, and witnesses said the northbound car dragged the 3-year-old boy about 150 feet.

Judge Black, who is scheduled to hear the case, was appointed to the Hillsborough circuit bench in March 2002 by Gov. Jeb Bush. Black had been practicing law in Tampa since 1985 and was a well-known civil litigation attorney with a specialty in sports law. He was also one of the attorneys who represented Bernice Edwards on state racketeering charges in the Rev. Henry J. Lyons case. A Pinellas jury acquitted her.

As a judge, Black has presided over a number of high-profile cases, most recently the case of Patricia Banks, the Gibsonton woman accused of shooting her former girlfriend. The defense attorney pushed to have Hillsborough State Attorney Mark Ober removed from the case, claiming Ober was treating Banks unfairly. Black sided with the state and allowed Ober to keep the case.

Black also presided over the DUI-manslaughter trial of Mario Zertuche, imposing a 15-year sentence on Zertuche in March after a jury convicted him of running down a Tampa woman who was pushing a baby stroller across Fowler Avenue.

With Black's assignment to the case, Judge Walter Heinrich, who handled emergency hearings in the case before charges were filed, will no longer play a role.

In April, Heinrich publicly chastised Porter's defense attorney, Barry Cohen, when Cohen tried to participate in a hearing concerning whether Porter's parents would cooperate with investigators.

Though Heinrich was elected a county court judge, since 1989 he has been paid extra for handling such hearings, and other duties normally reserved for circuit judges. Cohen said he found Heinrich's demeanor "disrespectful" and that he shouldn't be acting as a circuit judge.

Cohen filed public records requests regarding Heinrich's employment status, apparently preparing for an attempt to have Heinrich removed from the Porter case.

Tuesday, Cohen said the filing of the charge against Porter, and the assignment of the case to Judge Black, did not change his game plan.

"I can assure you that anything I'm contemplating about Judge Heinrich is not (rendered) moot by the filing of the information," Cohen said. "He sits as a de facto circuit judge."

- Christopher Goffard can be reached at goffard@sptimes.com or 813-226-3337.

[Last modified May 12, 2004, 01:55:26]


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