tampabay.com

No jail time for Porter

By CANDACE RONDEAUX
Published November 5, 2005


TAMPA - After a marathon hearing that ran well into the early hours this morning, a Hillsborough judge allowed teacher Jennifer Porter to avoid prison after pleading guilty in a March 2004 accident that left two children dead and two injured.

Judge Emmett Lamar Battles also sentenced Porter to two years of community control, three years of probation, 500 hours of community service work. She was ordered to undergo a psychiatric evaluation.

Porter showed no emotion as the sentence was pronounced.

The judge indicated that he gave great weight to the fact that she was a first-time offender, and appeared to be moved by the testimony of mental health experts.

"This offense, as horrible as it is, was committed in an unsophisticated manner," he said. After the verdict, Porter hugged her attorney Barry Cohen, who had appealed for leniency, putting on a stream of character witnesses who praised the 29-year-old former elementary school dance instructor. He also alluded repeatedly to a white van that some witnesses said may have struck the victims as they crossed a dark street on their way home from a city park in north Tampa.

But law enforcement officials discarded that two-vehicle theory during the investigation. And the victims' mother pressed for prison time.

Moments before the judge handed down the sentence Cohen begged for Battles to have mercy on his client.

"This sadness, this tragedy has weighed heavily on Jennifer and I can understand these feelings that these people have expressed because it's only natural that they have these feelings now," Cohen said. "You have to appreciate and empathize with the depth of this hurt.

"This is not the kind of person who's lived her life so that she should be judged and put in a penitentiary."

Prosecutor Kim Seace countered Cohen, saying, "This case was always about one thing - nothing else ... Four innocent beautiful children, four innocent children, eight empty little shoes left in the roadway where someone left them to die."

A little more than 18 months after Porter was charged with leaving the scene of an accident involving death, testimony in her sentencing hearing began Friday morning. More than 100 people packed a small Tampa courtroom, eager to catch a glimpse of the former Muller Elementary School dance teacher.

Two months ago, Porter stood before a Hillsborough judge as prosecutors described the fateful night that she had driven her Toyota Echo home from work. While witness accounts differ about what happened on March 31, 2004, attorneys on both sides acknowledged that Porter drove on after a collision that killed two children and injured two others.

The impact killed 13-year-old Bryant Wilkins and his brother Durontae Caldwell, 3. The boys' siblings - Aquina Wilkins, then 8, and LaJuan Davis, then 2 - were seriously injured. Porter did not publicly acknowledge her role in the accident until nearly five days later.

On Friday, lawyers, secretaries, police officers, clerks, family members from both sides and curious onlookers sat with rapt attention, listening to hours of testimony from more than 30 witnesses.

The children's mother, Lisa Wilkins, was determined to make sure justice was done before the night was over.

"I want her to be punished. I want her to go to prison. See, she gets to go back home to her parents. I don't get to see my kids though," Wilkins said during nearly an hour of testimony.

As she left the courthouse after the sentence was handed down, Wilkins spoke bitterly of the outcome.

"It's a race thing, that's how I see it," she said. "If it would have happened to me, I would have been in jail."

Wilkins compared her own state of mind following the accident to what experts described as Porter's mental vacancy after she realized what had happened: "After my kids passed, I didn't drive because I was in that comatose state," Wilkins said. But Porter did drive. And she kept driving. She drove to the dance studio that night and she drove to work the next day.

Porter entered into a plea deal in August that capped at three years the maximum amount of prison time she could receive. State guidelines called for 21 months for a first-time offender for the charge.

"It don't matter. My kids are gone. That lawyer wins everything," she said. "I hope she has fun dancing in that school."

Wilkins sobbed quietly almost from the moment testimony began. Flanked by family and friends, she looked pained as she listened to Porter's mother, Lillian Porter, describe her daughter's upbringing and events on the night of the accident.

First to be called to the witness stand, Porter's mother recalled her daughter's passion for dance and working with children. She said her daughter regularly attended church, adding that both her daughters were raised to observe the Golden Rule.

"We told them we wanted them to be the best kind of person that they could be, to be the kind of person that God would want them to be," she said. "She always tried to do the right thing."

But both of Porter's parents acknowledged they hadn't told their daughter to do the right thing the night of the crash.

Nearly 28 hours passed before Porter's father, James Greg Porter, decided to contact Tampa attorney Barry Cohen. Despite a televised tearful plea from Wilkins, it would be another four days before Porter came forward publicly.

On Friday, Porter's father said he regretted not notifying authorities earlier, and explained why he wiped blood off the car and then stored the vehicle in the family's garage.

"I guess you could say I was trying to buy time," he said. "I was trying to do whatever I could do to protect my daughter."

Lillian Porter said she was worried about her daughter's state of mind after the accident.

She said Jennifer called from her cell phone about 18 minutes after the accident.

"She was crying hysterically when she called," she said. "She said that a body went flying into her windshield. She said the windshield was about to cave in."

Lillian Porter said she told her daughter to drive to the dance studio where she worked, since it was nearby, and wait there. Porter's mother drove with a family friend to the crash site, and soon learned that two children had died.

She said she did not have the heart to tell her daughter what had happened. She said she was more concerned about Porter's fragile mental state.

"She looked like a ghost. Her eyes were all red; she had this look in her eyes that I could only describe as someone who was crazy," Lillian Porter said.

Lisa Wilkins placed much of the blame on Porter's parents. She singled out Porter's father, James Greg Porter, saying she could not understand how he could have told his family to go on with their lives as if nothing happened.

"It's not about Jennifer. It's about my kids. Jennifer is paying the price because of her parents," Wilkins said.

Things became tense when Cohen pressed Wilkins for details about a conversation she had with Porter months after the accident.

Alluding to witness accounts that a white van had allegedly hit the children first, Porter's attorney asked what his client had said about the possibility that another vehicle was involved. But Wilkins would not be moved, saying she dreamed one of her dead sons told her Porter was the only one to blame.

"Everytime when y'all kept saying it was the white van ... my baby came to me and just shook his head," Wilkins said.

Former Hillsborough County associate medical examiner Dr. Daniel Spitz appeared to back the theory that a single car hit the two boys. Spitz said an autopsy of Bryant revealed that the impact caused fatal head and neck injuries. He said both boys had bruises that showed they were struck on the left side as they crossed the road.

Later, Aquina Wilkins, 9, gave the courtroom an eye-witness account of the wreck, and her own view of what the penalty should be.

Her chin barely above the witness stand, she recalled the night her two brothers died.

Amid sniffles from the audience, the little girl said she missed them. Her hair in ponytails, she said she had seen a woman with brown hair behind the wheel. She said the driver appeared distracted and looked straight ahead as she dragged her brother, Durontae, for nearly 150 feet down the street.

"I think she needs to be punished because I get punished if I don't clean my room up," the girl said. "I think she needs to get punished like I do.

Outside the courthouse, a handful of protesters from the St. Petersburg Uhuru Movement echoed Wilkins' demand for prison time.

With a bullhorn and signs, the group of African-Americans called on the judge to impose a harsh sentence. Protester Gaida Kambon, 64, said the plea deal was unjust and she worried that Porter would come away unscathed.

"The message that's sent to people in this city is that black people are still three-fifths of a human being," Kambon said. "This puts all black children's lives in jeopardy. It says that if you're white and you kill black children, you can walk away."

Several psychological experts called by Porter's attorney seemed to agree that Porter, who has not driven since shortly after the accident, had paid a high price for her actions. Psychoanalyst Dr. Lycia Alexander-Guerra said Porter began receiving counseling immediately after the incident.

Alexander-Guerra said she thinks Porter likely was shocked into an acute stress reaction when she saw the body make impact with the Toyota's windshield. She said Porter will probably suffer from post-traumatic stress syndrome for years to come.

"I think the biggest punishment is her guilt. It's a life sentence," Alexander-Guerra said.

The argument did not score points with Hillsborough prosecutor Kim Seace.

Seace questioned Alexander-Guerra's theory that Porter went "on automatic pilot" after the accident. The prosecutor said Porter's decision to go to work the day after the tragedy proved that she was mentally fit at the time.

- Staff writer Rebecca Catalanello and Daniel Wallace contributed to this report.

COMING NOV. 13

A five-part special report detailing the case begins next Sunday.