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Hit-run case resolved with one word: guilty

According to the new plea agreement, Jennifer Porter could serve up to three years in prison.

Published August 31, 2005

[Times photo: Bill Serne]
Jennifer Porter and attorney Barry Cohen leave the Hillsborough County Courthouse today.

Photo gallery with audio
Previous coverage
Prosecutor's statement

TAMPA - The prosecutor leaned toward the microphone and read the detailed, agonizing account of what happened on the evening of March 31, 2004.

In the packed courtroom, inmates in orange jumpsuits and slickly dressed lawyers, uniformed sheriff's deputies and people there for other cases, they all listened.

Several let out quiet gasps. A few shook their heads or covered their mouths in disbelief. One woman's eyes filled with tears.

Jennifer Porter stood stone-faced and silent, while every eye and camera in the room focused on her. Her parents, Lillian and Greg Porter, stared at the floor.

Just before noon Tuesday, the 29-year-old former schoolteacher pleaded guilty to leaving the scene of an accident involving death, a second-degree felony punishable by up to 15 years in prison.

But a plea agreement with prosecutors assured her a maximum sentence of three years and the hope that a judge might give her less time for her role in the accident that killed two siblings, Bryant Wilkins, 13, and his 3-year-old brother, Durontae Caldwell, and injured two others, Aquina Wilkins, 8, and her brother LaJuan Davis, 2.

Porter's attorney, Barry Cohen, said he plans to ask at her Oct. 7 sentencing hearing that she serve no prison time at all.

"This is about acceptance of responsibility and respect for the mother of these children, the children that are alive, the children that are not alive," Cohen said, mentioning a March meeting between Porter and the children's mother, Lisa Wilkins. "Miss Porter prayed and cried with Miss Wilkins and just did not want to put her through another day of living through this."

He said Porter was a teacher who "taught her students when you make a mistake, you don't make excuses. You accept responsibility. This is the best example she can give them."

Revealing his strategy for the sentencing, Cohen spoke about the "trauma" Porter experienced.

"Jennifer is throwing herself on the mercy of this court and the community," said Cohen, who previously had rejected plea offers from prosecutors and didn't say why he agreed to one now.

"We hope the court, after hearing all the facts, will do what we ask, and that is not to put Jennifer in jail. Return her to the community, and maybe someday to teaching.

"She has suffered terribly."

That explanation didn't sit well with bystanders in the courtroom, many of who muttered under their breath and expressed disgust when they heard the terms of the agreement.

Keith Kirk, 22, identified himself as a friend of the children's mother, Lisa Wilkins.

"Three years? C'mon," he said. ". . . You know if it was a black man, he'd be locked up. It's a white girl with money. They say money talks."

It also didn't sit well in the university area neighborhood where the accident happened last year. Residents there said even the maximum punishment wasn't severe enough, considering two children died.

"She left them children to die," said Melinda Seward, sitting on the porch of an apartment at the corner where the accident occurred. "They will give you more than three years for selling drugs."

Resident Valencia Williams said the tragedy brought the community more lights and more stop signs so other children can cross the street without fear of being run over. But it wasn't enough.

"That mother can't sleep at night because her children's lives were cut short," Williams said. "People have to pay for what they do, and she (Porter) will truly pay. But only God knows just how much."

Porter was arrested after witnesses told investigators they saw a silver Toyota Echo matching the description of her car hit the four children near dusk along 22nd Street. The siblings had crossed the road to play at a local community center and were returning home. Porter was leaving her job as a dance instructor at nearby Muller Elementary School.

Court documents released since the arrest have detailed the evening of the accident. They portray the Porters as a family frantic with worry and distraught over how to protect their daughter after the fatal wreck.

It took 28 hours from the time Jennifer Porter's Toyota Echo was involved in the crash for her family to contact a lawyer. It would take another four days until she stepped forward in public.

Records indicate that, during that time, no one in the Porter family suggested calling police. Jennifer Porter threatened suicide more than once. Her father, James, cleaned blood from the car. Jennifer Porter drove herself to work the morning after the wreck, taught at school, and then drove herself to teach dance lessons that night.

Lisa Wilkins, the mother of the two boys killed in the wreck, did not attend the hearing Tuesday and could not be reached for comment.

Her attorney, Tom Parnell, did not return phone calls. He has declined to comment other than to say he would not be filing a civil suit.

Earlier this year, Wilkins bought a two-story house worth $270,000 in Land O'Lakes. Parnell has refused to say how Wilkins, who previously had financial difficulties, paid for the house or whether she reached a civil lawsuit settlement, but shortly after the crash, he threatened to file suit.

The house, according to Pasco County public records, has no mortgage and appears to have been bought with cash.

Civil matters often are resolved before lawsuits hit the courthouse because insurance companies negotiate settlements in cases they think will be lost at trial or be too costly to defend.

Wilkins and Porter have met before, in a 45-minute encounter with no lawyers present, at a Tampa law firm.

"Because I'm a Christian, I can't hate you," Wilkins, 30, told Porter during the March meeting, according to the Rev. Michelle Patty, the only witness to the encounter.

Wilkins asked Porter that day: "Why did you leave my kids in the road like that, why did you keep going, and why you didn't call somebody?"

Patty said the two women prayed together that day, even cried together.

The tearful meeting was detailed in court records after Porter had rejected a plea offer of three years in state prison and 10 years of probation. Cohen, her attorney, had called the plea offer from prosecutors "unacceptable."

At the time, Parnell said he wasn't impressed by the prosecutors' offer.

"I didn't think it was much of an offer," he said. "It was meant to send a message that (prosecutors) were going to try this case."

On Tuesday, all that changed.

Times staff writer Demorris Lee contributed to this report.

[Last modified August 31, 2005, 01:40:47]

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