'I want her to be punished'

Published November 5, 2005

TAMPA - They whispered about her at Sunday Mass. They hooted and clapped and called her "murderer" when she walked into the jail to turn herself in. No one remembered the good girl anymore.

And now the thing people are likely to remember most about Jennifer Porter is the accident that killed two children.

A little more than 18 months after Porter, 29, was charged with leaving the scene of an accident involving death, testimony in her sentencing hearing began Friday. 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.

Near midnight, after testimony from more than a dozen witnesses, her fate still was not clear.

But one thing was certain: the children's mother, Lisa Wilkins, was determined to ensure that justice was done.

"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 her nearly hourlong testimony.

Porter entered into a plea deal in August that capped the maximum amount of prison time she could receive at three years.

State guidelines call for 21 months for a first-time offender for the charge. But it is up to Hillsborough Circuit Judge Emmett Lamar Battles to decide how long Porter should be imprisoned, if at all.

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."

Upstairs moments later, however, it was easy to see that no one connected to the accident would walk away unchanged.

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 the 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 Porter's parents acknowledged that they hadn't told their daughter to do the right thing the night of the crash. Lillian Porter said her daughter called her 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.

But 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 for what happened 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.

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 she saw her two brothers die. Amid sniffles from the audience, the little girl said she missed her siblings. Her hair in ponytails, she said she had seen a woman with brown hair behind the wheel. She said Porter 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."

Times staff writer Rebecca Catalanello contributed to this report.