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Choreography

THOMAS FRENCH, CHRISTOPHER GOFFARD and JAMIE THOMPSON
Published November 14, 2005

That Friday morning, he woke not knowing any of it, not her name, not her story, not the how or why.

But as Barry Cohen drove his midnight blue Mercedes from his Redington Shores condominium to his law office in Tampa, he felt outraged over what had happened to the four children on 22nd Street. He remembers thinking about the accident, the children on the pavement, the mother's grief.

Headed across the bay, Cohen knew he had to do something. He decided to offer a $10,000 reward. He wanted to know who had left those kids to die in the street.

He tried to envision the type of person who could have done this. There was no face, just a word that repeated in his head.

Coward.

* * *

Cohen stepped out of the elevator, walked across a golden oriental rug and pressed his index finger into a security scanner. A green light flashed, and he pushed through the wooden doors. His offices took up the entire 10th floor of a downtown high-rise.

A predator motif asserted itself throughout the suite. A wolf's head sat on a pedestal in the lobby; a brass lion bared its fangs on an end table; a ceramic tiger padded across a coffee table. Next to his desk, Cohen kept a stuffed wolf. Without irony, or a trace of modesty, he would tell people the wolf was his totem. Succumb, it was meant to say, or be torn to pieces.

To Cohen, the law was war. At age 64, he had spent more than three decades fighting prosecutors and charming juries in some of the bay area's most notorious cases. He could be captivating, grandiose, compassionate, prickly, mercurial. In successive breaths, he could flatter you, berate you, vivisect you.

It was Friday, April 2, 2004. As Cohen was settling into his corner office, one of his top criminal attorneys, Lyann Goudie, stepped in with some news. After midnight, the firm's answering service had received an urgent message. It was someone calling on behalf of one of the drivers in the hit-and-run.

Cohen didn't know if he wanted to help. But he couldn't resist learning more.

"Bring them in right away," he said.

These days, it was rare for Cohen to take a criminal case. Criminal work was gritty and stressful. He had spent the past decade transitioning his firm into the more lucrative civil arena, suing insurance companies and hospitals for medical malpractice and wrongful death. He took the occasional criminal case when he felt a connection with a client. Colleagues said it was partly why he had been so successful; he tended toward cases that struck a chord with him. Once, Cohen said, he had turned away a wealthy woman accused of killing two people while driving drunk.

"I can't represent you because I don't like you," Cohen remembers telling her. "If I don't like you, I can't make a jury feel the way I want them to feel about you."

About an hour later that morning, Cohen and Goudie stepped into the firm's law library. A mother and a father were seated at the big conference table; between them was their daughter. It was obvious who had been in the accident. The daughter was crying.

Cohen's eyes focused on Jennifer Porter. Her head was lowered; her body was hunched over the table. She looked fragile and devastated, nothing like the monster he had imagined. He thought of his own daughter. What would he feel if she were seated across from him, bent over with grief? He felt his anger over the dead children giving way to sadness and pity.

James and Lillian Porter started to tell Cohen about their daughter. He listened, weighing all the things that made this pale young woman more than just the driver in a hit-and-run case. She was an elementary schoolteacher. She was 28. She lived at home. She had never been in serious trouble.

Even before Jennifer Porter spoke, Cohen had decided to accept the case. He was already feeling protective of her. He knew that the parents - a postal worker and a teacher's aide - could not afford him. He would do it anyway.

The Porters told him Jennifer wanted to turn herself in. In time, Cohen said. First he and Goudie needed to hear the whole story. They needed to speak to Jennifer alone.

The parents left the room. The lawyers turned to Jennifer Porter. They wanted her to take them through the day of the accident, step by step.

"I'm not going to sit in judgment of you," Cohen said.

What Porter shared remains confidential, protected by attorney-client privilege. But after hearing her account, Cohen and his team began drafting a plan. They decided they would turn over Porter and her car to investigators. The criminal justice system was harder on people who tried to hide, and Porter had already waited a day and a half.

But first, Cohen wanted to do a couple of things. He knew Porter could be facing at least two charges: leaving the scene of a fatal crash, and vehicular homicide. From what he had heard so far, he didn't believe it was a homicide case. His team needed to start collecting evidence to disprove that charge. In Cohen's mind, this was where his firm excelled - in extensive, behind-the-scenes research. His firm was capable, Cohen believed, of out-investigating the police.

Porter's Toyota Echo was still at her family's house in Land O'Lakes. Cohen sent two of his investigators to take pictures of the car.

He needed to know what people had witnessed at the accident scene on 22nd Street in Tampa. He sent several black employees to the community center. He told them to talk to people, learn what they could.

If his team was going to understand what had really happened, Cohen knew they had to move fast.

* * *

Harold Jones ran the Morning Glory Funeral Chapel on Nebraska Avenue, a small chapel he had converted from a run-down building and hung with a hand-painted sign. The lobby featured framed glossies of Jones earlier in life, when he sang on gospel records.

Jones' commitment to the funeral business was personal. His mother had died when he was 16; all these years later, he still remembered how the funeral home had held her body hostage for two weeks until his destitute family could gather the cash to pay for the service.

"That hurt me so bad," he said.

These days, his pride was being able to do a funeral for $1,695, so poor people didn't have to cremate their loved ones.

Now he found himself on the phone with Lisa Wilkins. He knew she had no insurance. Jones told her not to worry, even if donations didn't cover the funeral costs.

"We'll do the best we can to bury those babies. If we don't get no money, we'll bury them for free."

He was waiting for Lisa when she arrived, family and friends pressing close around her. Jones ushered her into his showroom of caskets and held her while she cried. He prayed with her. He told her they had to trust God.

"I trust him," she said.

For Bryant, Lisa picked out a steel casket in white with gold trim, angels decorating each corner, white satin on the interior. Jones told her he would special-order a small casket for Durontae.

She picked matching granite headstones for her boys. She tried to think of what to say on them. Jones suggested "In Loving Memory" for both. She thought that sounded right.

* * *

Around the sheriff's operations center in Ybor City, the top brass knew the case was a mess.

Two days after the accident, investigators still didn't know how many vehicles were involved. They had not found the white van. Compounding their problems was the fact that the lead traffic homicide investigator was having difficulty gathering the precise details he needed to reconstruct the accident.

When the investigator arrived on 22nd Street about an hour after the hit-and-run, deputies already had let most of the witnesses go home. No one had marked the exact locations where the four children were found - important for his reconstruction. The investigator said he asked one of the first deputies on scene, but she was so traumatized by seeing the dead and injured children that she could not say for sure.

Still now, on Friday morning, no drivers had stepped forward. That was about to change. Early that afternoon, Cohen called Hillsborough State Attorney Mark Ober and told him he had been hired by one of the drivers. He said his client wanted to turn herself in, and her car. Ober said he would get back to Cohen.

Cohen did not name his client. He said he did not want authorities to track her down and arrest her. If they issued a warrant, Cohen wanted to surrender his client at the jail and to be with her.

When Ober called back, he told Cohen there was no warrant for the driver, so there was no legal basis for turning her in. As for the car, Cohen needed to make arrangements with sheriff's investigators. Cohen called a sheriff's lieutenant to arrange a meeting that evening.

Cohen was hardly a beloved figure at the Sheriff's Office. He had been criticizing the agency for years, castigating its investigators on NBC's Today show and Larry King Live for their handling of the Aisenberg missing baby case.

Seven years before, 5-month-old Sabrina Aisenberg had vanished from her family's Valrico home. Sheriff's detectives focused on Sabrina's parents, Steve and Marlene Aisenberg. The couple hired Cohen, who accused detectives of trying to frame his clients rather than searching for their baby. Ultimately, a grand jury indicted the couple on charges of conspiracy and lying to investigators after prosecutors alleged the couple had made incriminating statements on secretly recorded conversations in their home.

It sounded like an airtight case. Then Cohen discovered that the tapes were largely inaudible. A judge recommended that the tapes be suppressed after saying the detectives acted with a "reckless disregard for the truth" in obtaining warrants to bug the couple's home. A week later, prosecutors dropped the charges. The two lead detectives were reprimanded. The government paid Cohen's legal tab of $1.3-million, a rare occurrence. Years later, he still referred to the lead investigators as "Dumb and Dumber."

"If I ever do anything wrong," Cohen would say, "I hope the Hillsborough Sheriff's Office is the agency investigating me."

About 6 p.m. that Friday, Cohen led a sheriff's cruiser and an unmarked patrol car to the Porter family's one-story white house in Land O'Lakes. The Echo was in the driveway. Deputies examined the cracked windshield, the dented hood.

Investigators finally had their car. What they didn't have was the driver's name. They ran the tag: T27 IYL. It was registered to James Porter, the father, and Kelly Porter, the younger of his two daughters. Deputies had the Echo towed to the Florida Department of Law Enforcement crime lab in Tampa.

By that evening, they were questioning one of their central assumptions - that two cars were involved. Maybe a white van hadn't hit the children at all. Maybe it was just the Echo. Investigators worked through the weekend. They went door to door in the neighborhood, asking which family member drove the Echo. People pointed to the dark-haired daughter, Jennifer.

About noon Sunday, Cohen called a sheriff's official and confirmed that the older Porter sister was the driver.

He said his client had panicked, then been given some bad advice. He was holding a press conference Monday so the public could see her and realize she was not a horrible person.

Cohen wanted a day or two to get things in order, then Porter would speak to investigators. He promised.

* * *

That weekend, Cohen drove Mr. and Mrs. Porter to Lisa Wilkins' apartment.

It was an impulsive decision. Cohen said he thought the parents should tell Wilkins how sorry they were. He described it as a gesture of respect. He also believed it could not hurt their case.

Jennifer Porter was in no condition to join them. Cohen believed she might be suicidal and had arranged for her to see a psychiatrist. No one talked on the way over. Cohen could tell the parents were nervous.

He parked at the curb. They walked past a crowd and stepped inside the apartment. A woman came over. Cohen extended his hand, introduced himself and the Porters. They had come to speak with Ms. Wilkins, he said.

The woman guided them back outside. Ms. Wilkins, she said, was in no condition to see them. Maybe sometime, but not today.

* * *

Jennifer Porter was trying to find the right words.

Cohen had given her a legal pad, in case she thought of anything she wanted to jot down. Now, holding a pen, she contemplated the first blank page.

It was Sunday night. That weekend, the family was staying at the Tampa home of Porter's maternal grandparents. Tomorrow, she knew she would be on TV for everyone to study. Cohen had told her he would do all the talking, if she didn't feel up to it.

Porter had decided she could not remain silent. As she later explained it, there were so many things roiling inside her, she had to get some of them out. She wanted to let her students know she was thinking of them. More than anything, she said, she wanted to look into the camera and speak directly to Lisa Wilkins.

She wrote quietly for an hour or so. When she was done, she read it over several times. She wanted to be sure she hadn't forgotten anything.

* * *

Reporters crowded into Cohen's conference room just before 10 on Monday morning.

Cohen made his entrance, followed by Jennifer Porter and then her father, mother and sister. They walked toward the bank of microphones on the long granite table. Porter sat beside her attorney, looking down. She held her father's hand.

"Jennifer," Cohen told the group, "was the driver of the Echo Toyota that was involved in the accident this past Wednesday. And she wanted to come forward to do the right thing . . .

"We called the authorities and we took them to the car that Jennifer was driving. We cooperated with them, and we have been cooperating with them."

Cohen urged the other drivers to come forward and show the "same kind of courage" Porter had.

He tried to answer the most pressing question: Why had she run?

"No one knows how he or she will react in the face of what Jennifer was faced with. Frightened beyond imagination, and all of a sudden something happens that no one can ever anticipate. The shock, the thoughts running through your mind, the fear."

Then it was Porter's turn. Before the press conference, she had shown Cohen her statement; both the attorney and his client say he did not change a word. Now Porter unfolded the piece of paper and began to read.

"I want to express my deepest sympathies to Lisa Wilkins, her family, friends and the whole community. I'm sorry."

Porter looked into the cameras.

"I'm so sorry," she said. "I wish there was more that I could say to ease her pain. I know there's nothing I can do to bring your two precious sons back, Bryant and Durontae. And I will continue to pray for the speedy recovery of your other two children. May God bless all of you."

Her voice was subdued, shaking a little.

"Even though I do not have children of my own, I am around them and work with them every day. I work at Muller Elementary magnet school, teaching dance to children in the community. And I love them. They're the ones that make me want to get up early and go to work every day. Teaching dance has been a passion of mine since childhood. And I love to bring the joy of dance into the lives of children."

When she was done, Cohen took a few questions.

"Barry, when will she meet with investigators?" one reporter asked.

"Just as soon as she is able to do so," Cohen replied.

"Why is she not able to do so now?"

"Why? Because she's been through a trauma that no one can imagine and she's having to deal with some really tough issues."

* * *

Lisa Wilkins sat in her apartment watching the press conference on TV. She was seething.

To Lisa, Porter's apology was no apology at all. Not when she was reading her words off a piece of paper. Not when she refused to explain what had happened.

Lisa wanted to reach into the TV and close her hands around Porter's neck and just squeeze.

"They're making it seem like she's the victim," Lisa told a friend.

Lisa had never heard of Barry Cohen. But it became clear that everyone else had. In no time, people were telling her how powerful and well-connected Cohen was. That he knew judges.

In Tampa's black community, a consensus was quickly forming. The Rev. Wilmington James Favorite, of Beulah Baptist Church, said he heard it everywhere: "This lady is gonna walk because of Barry."

* * *

Two sheriff's investigators watched the press conference from the FDLE lab in Tampa. Cohen, they noticed, had been careful. He and his client hadn't admitted to anything, except that Porter had been driving the Echo. She'd apologized, but hadn't said what she was apologizing for.

The sheriff's investigators needed evidence to put Porter behind the wheel. They had to figure out whether she should be charged with vehicular homicide, which carried up to 30 years for each count, or leaving the scene of a deadly crash, with a possible 15-year penalty. It depended largely on whether she had been reckless: speeding, drinking or on drugs.

Detectives wanted to interview Porter, and Cohen had promised she would cooperate. The day after the press conference, a lieutenant faxed Cohen a letter.

Please consider this a formal request to meet with and interview your client, Jennifer Porter . . . Should you decline, please do so today in writing and advise why Ms. Porter is unavailable.

* * *

"Do you know why we're here talking to you today?"

Aquina Wilkins nodded. "Because I got ranned over."

It was Wednesday, April 7, one week after the crash. Surgeons had implanted a metal rod and screws in Aquina's left leg. Now the 8-year-old was home from the hospital, in bed, surrounded by stuffed animals. A prosecutor and an interviewer from Victims' Assistance were paying a visit.

Aquina recounted what she remembered. That afternoon at the park, Aquina explained, she and her brothers played on the swings and watched basketball. They had hamburgers, fries and juice.

She said it was Bryant who decided they should leave. "He said, "Oh my God, it's time to go home. Mama said to be home before dark.' "

At 22nd Street, they looked to see if any cars were coming, then started across, holding hands, Aquina on one end, then LaJuan, Durontae and Bryant. One of her brothers screamed, "A car!"

"The lights was off of the car, and then I recognized it was a car coming our way. Then I screamed "Help!' and nobody heard us," she said. "Then it hit us. And then it kept on going."

Aquina remembered the car's driver.

"She was listening to music and it was kinda loud and she didn't hear what she bumped," Aquina said. "Smooth jam," she called the music coming from the car. She hummed some.

"Do you know if a boy or a girl was driving the car that hit you?" the prosecutor asked.

"A girl," Aquina said, and added: "She had a ponytail and a dress on."

"Do you remember what color her hair was?"

"Brown."

"Did all four of you get hit by the same car?"

"Yes, ma'am."

They gave Aquina a pen and a legal pad. Could she draw a picture of the scene?

Aquina concentrated, trying to remember. She drew carefully for three minutes. Then she turned around the pad to show it.

On the left side of the page, she had drawn four blocky T-figures to represent herself, LaJuan, Durontae and Bryant, holding hands as they crossed the road. She had given everyone balloons for heads, dots for eyes. As is common with children's art, she had given them all smiles.

From the right, she had drawn a car hurtling toward them. The balloonish head behind the wheel sprouted a long squiggle, to indicate the driver had a female's long hair. Aquina had given her a smile, too.

* * *

The woman behind the wheel remained a mystery.

Jennifer Porter was no longer teaching at Muller Elementary. Pending the investigation, she had been placed on leave. For the moment, she was not leading private dance classes at her studio, either. When sheriff's investigators went to her family's home, no one answered. To those outside her circle, she seemed to have become a ghost.

Even before the accident, Porter had been the kind of person who was easy to miss. The word used to describe her, over and over, was "quiet." Other generalities followed, even from friends and family. "Sweet" came up repeatedly. Also "kind" and "innocent," "honest" and "good-hearted."

A year earlier, when Porter was applying for the opening at Muller Elementary, someone wrote the following notes about her:

very calm, low-key

attendance good

punctuality

very skilled

At the bottom of the page, with an arrow next to them, were two final words:

not dynamic

As part of her application, Porter was given a personality test. She said she was more focused on details than the big picture, that she rigidly followed rules and policies, that she was rarely involved in staff conflicts.

Her responses pointed to a pleaser, someone who always wanted not just to do the right thing, but to have validation beforehand that she was in fact conforming to expectation. On the test, she said she was more given to pondering before she acted, rather than reflecting afterward. Asked if she would rather seek permission first or forgiveness later, she said she was much more likely to ask for permission.

Caution defined her. She still lived under her parents' roof. She talked about wanting a house of her own, a husband and kids, but hadn't had a boyfriend in years.

"I don't need those complications right now," she told another teacher not long before the accident.

She had virtually no experience with living outside the lines. In an interview, a St. Petersburg Times reporter asked Porter to name the worst trouble she'd been in before the accident. She reflected for a few seconds, then cited one night in high school, when she and her sister, Kelly, went to a Halloween party.

"We stayed out past curfew," she said, "and we didn't call our parents."

Meeting Porter in person, it was easy to see where the pleasant generalities began. Whatever happened that evening on 22nd Street, whatever mistakes she had made, in conversation she came across as shy, thoughtful, unfailingly polite.

She was, in fact, extraordinarily quiet. Her voice was soft and uninsistent, even when she touched on something difficult. She sipped her coffee quietly. She cleared her throat quietly. When she reached for a tissue and began to cry, she barely made a sound.

Everything about her was turned to the lowest volume possible. She was 5-3, but seemed smaller. She could have passed for someone 10 years younger.

Though her lawyer would not let her talk about the accident, the weight of that night was clearly present in Porter's voice and manner. She barely smiled. She spoke slowly and carefully, as though each word required lifting. Even when she was describing the most minor, everyday aspects of her life, she seemed distracted, depleted, far away.

* * *

She grew up in Pasco County. Her dad was a postal worker, her mom an elementary school teacher's aide who taught English to children from other countries. Jennifer's mother was born in Cuba and came to the United States as a girl with her parents shortly after Castro took over. The family was allowed to bring only one suitcase to their new country. Growing up in a Cuban-American household, Jennifer's own first language was Spanish. She didn't learn English, she said, until she went to preschool.

Her parents were Catholic. She went to Most Holy Redeemer elementary school. She received her first communion at Our Lady of the Rosary, the family's church in Land O'Lakes. Later, she transferred to public schools. At River Ridge High, she was a good student, earning A's and B's. She belonged to the student chapters of the Future Educators of America and also Students Against Drunk Driving. Her uncle taught her to drive in a school parking lot.

A boyfriend from that time, John DeHope, recalls the two of them going out to movies. Angling for a first kiss, he learned to ask in Spanish.

"Dame un beso," he said.

The kiss was a disaster. He and Porter were out of synch. Instead of getting upset, she researched the problem, gathering kissing tips from Cosmopolitan and other magazines, then compiling them into a scrapbook for the two of them to study.

DeHope remembers the Porters as a tight-knit family. Mrs. Porter, he says, had inherited a strict approach to parenting from her Cuban upbringing. She was in charge of the day-to-day decisions.

"If we wanted to go out," he says, "we asked her mom."

People who knew Jennifer spoke of her unswerving obedience, her reserve, the way she blended into a crowd, barely creating a ripple.

"You really didn't know she was there," one relative recalled with admiration. "At all the family reunions, she was just kind of there, and very kind, and very respectful."

Jennifer and her sister, Kelly, five years apart, cycled through the usual big sister-little sister patterns. Jennifer remembers being in her room with her girlfriends and hearing Kelly endlessly knocking at the door, begging admittance. Still, the two girls were a team. In the grocery store, after ballet class, they would practice their turns and footwork. As their mom shopped, they would pirouette through the produce section.

Dance was the constant. Jennifer took her first class when she was 8, and never looked back. She took ballet, jazz, tap, modern, flamenco. Soon she was choreographing routines for Kelly. Despite the age difference, the two of them took many of the same classes and would rehearse together for hours, with Jennifer showing Kelly what to do. When she was still in her teens, Jennifer began teaching other children. Her first class was three preschoolers in tutus.

Their father converted the family's garage into a dance studio. He did it in a single weekend, working with a friend who knew construction. The two of them raised a wooden floor over the concrete slab. They lined one wall with mirrors, installed a ballet barre. Mr. Porter would watch his two daughters practicing and offer suggestions, telling them if they forgot to point their feet during a jump.

"He watched so many performances," Jennifer remembered, "he had a pretty good eye."

Her love of dance carried her into the dance program at the University of South Florida. The work was exhausting and required an abiding tolerance for pain. Like the other dancers, Porter suffered constantly from aching muscles, bruises and floor burns, an endless parade of blisters.

To her, it became increasingly clear that her body was not built for ballet. She was a couple of inches too short. Her legs weren't long enough. Plus, she didn't have a classic ballerina's spine.

"Ballerinas have a very straight back," she said. "I have a curve to my back."

She concentrated more of her energies on a form of dance for which her body was perfect. In flamenco, height was not an issue. Straight lines were discouraged. The female dancers were expected to arch their backs, make use of their hips, accentuate their curves.

Porter found that flamenco allowed her to express things she normally kept inside. As her teachers explained in class, the dance was supposed to emerge from the soul - more precisely, from a spiritual force known as duende. The emotions overflowed with passion and drama. Flamenco was about love, yes, but also about anger, sadness, loss, regret. The dance was not quiet or shy.

"It's not subtle," Porter said. "It articulates things that are difficult to put into words."

When she graduated from USF in 2000, she took an adjunct position teaching dance at Perkins Elementary, an arts magnet in St. Petersburg. She made the nearly 100-mile round trip from her parents' house in Land O'Lakes every school day. The next year, she made a bid toward independence. She and Kelly moved to Miami to study and teach dance. The two sisters got an apartment together. After a while, Jennifer had had enough. She was lonely. She didn't like the pushiness of Miami. Besides, Kelly had a boyfriend, Kurt Doiron, and they were talking about moving to Hawaii.

Jennifer returned to her parents' house and settled back into her routine. During the day she was teaching again at Perkins; at night she was sleeping in the same room in which she'd slept as a little girl. As some around her would later point out, her reliance on her parents was not particularly surprising. In Cuban-American families, daughters often live at home well into their 20s.

With the financial help of her parents, Porter opened her own dance studio in a shopping center not far from the house. She took a new job - a full-time job - at Muller.

As 2004 began, she was working hard, teaching at the school all day and then driving to the studio most evenings to teach for another couple of hours. She didn't have much time for romance. She hadn't had a boyfriend in years.

Later, a prosecutor would ask Kelly Porter about this. Jennifer, the prosecutor pointed out, was a pretty girl. She'd dated in high school and college. But then she'd stopped. Why?

"I don't know," Kelly said. "She's very busy. She's always been busy. That's not an important thing in her life."

"To get married and have kids?"

"No."

"She's focused totally on her career?"

"On her dancing, yes."

By that spring, Kelly and her boyfriend had returned from Hawaii, accepting her parents' offer to let the two of them stay in Kelly's old room while they went back to school.

Then came Wednesday, March 31. The evening of the accident.

In the days that followed, as the family closed ranks, it became impossible to know what had happened. Why hadn't Porter stopped? Was it a matter of panicking, as Cohen said? Or was there more? Later, in court, her psychiatrist would suggest another theory: After a lifetime of following the rules, maybe Porter had reached her breaking point when trouble found her anyway.

As the investigation rolled forward, a few details were made public. Porter had driven the damaged Echo to her private studio after the accident and parked it behind the building. Her mother had driven the Echo home. Her father had then decided the car should be moved inside, into the same garage he had once turned into a dance studio for his daughters. He had used Lysol and paper towels to clean blood from the car.

That night, when she heard that two children were dead, Porter doubled over in anguish, her family said. She curled into a fetal position, covered her face, began to tremble and cry. Finally she went to her room, accompanied by her mother, and tried to find some sleep.

In the middle of the night, her mother said, Jennifer turned to her and asked her to suffocate her with a pillow.

* * *

Lisa Wilkins stepped out of a limousine behind the Morning Glory Funeral Chapel. She was ushered through the back door to see Bryant and Durontae. Her sons were laid out in their steel caskets in matching ivory suits and powder-blue shirts and ties. The caskets were open. Veils lay over their faces. Lisa looked in the caskets and screamed. The child in the smaller, 4-foot casket looked all wrong. The face wasn't Durontae's.

"That's not my baby," she cried.

She looked closer. She saw a little scar on his left ear. Durontae had got it bounding into a pair of scissors Bryant had been holding, cutting out an article for a school assignment on current events.

Lisa fell before the caskets.

Harold Jones, standing nearby, had to keep looking away, so he wouldn't break down himself. Later, he would search for the right words to describe Lisa's anguish.

"It's that kind of scream that's just everlasting. I can hear her scream right now."

Lisa managed to lift the veils. She kissed the faces of her dead sons.

"Mama be home to see you after a while," she said.

* * *

Lisa's children were becoming symbols in an angry cause. So was Jennifer Porter. That night at the crash site, after the wake, protesters stood with a poster bearing an enlarged photo of Porter's downcast face.

It read:

Why is This White Woman Not in Jail? Now!

The protesters belonged to the Uhuru Movement, a St. Petersburg group that decried the justice system as racist.

Lisa Wilkins' lawyer spoke for her: Leave a grieving mother in peace, please.

She wanted no part of this protest, didn't want to be anyone's symbol.

- - -

The anger found its way to Cohen's 10th-floor office through letters and telephone calls. Many of the callers were black.

Cohen responded with a full-page ad in the Florida Sentinel-Bulletin, Tampa's black-owned weekly newspaper.

An Open Letter To The African-American Community From Attorney Barry A. Cohen

I am writing this letter today out of respect and concern for the feelings of the African-American community due to the untimely and troubling deaths of Bryant and Durontae . . . There have been suggestions that race has affected both my client's treatment by law enforcement and my representation of my client. Nothing could be further from the truth.

I have spent a lifetime fighting right beside you for all of our civil rights and civil liberties. As a young prosecutor, in December of 1968, I personally prosecuted the former Florida Ku Klux Klan Grand Dragon, William Richardson, resulting in ten years imprisonment for his outrageously unlawful conduct . . .

Cohen noted that his holiday card the previous year quoted Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., and that he had a portrait in his office of one African-American extending an arm to help another.

My representation of Jennifer Porter is to protect her - just as I have protected the sons and daughters of African-Americans . . .

* * *

In front of the television cameras, Cohen had promised his client would cooperate. But three days had gone by since the investigators had requested an interview with Porter, and there had been no reply.

On April 9, the lieutenant sent another request by certified mail.

Again, silence.

COMING WEDNESDAY Part 3: The Porter family describes the night of the accident and the traumatic days that followed.

About this story

This series is based on a year of reporting by Times staff writers Christopher Goffard, Jamie Thompson and Thomas French. They interviewed the principal figures in the case and gathered information from police reports, court documents and other records.

In today's installment, the sections describing Lisa Wilkins' perspective and the preparation for her sons' funeral are based on interviews with Wilkins and with Harold Jones. Aquina Wilkins' recounting of the accident comes from a videotape of her statement. The sections on Barry Cohen's initial contact with Jennifer Porter are based on interviews with Cohen. The moment describing Cohen's offer to turn Porter over to the authorities is based on Cohen's recollection and was confirmed with Mark Ober, the Hillsborough State Attorney.

Jennifer Porter's background and history are based on sworn testimony from her friends and family as well as her psychiatrist, and interviews with people who have known Porter over the years. In addition, Porter shared details about her life in two interviews conducted in Barry Cohen's offices. Cohen was present for the interviews; on his advice, Porter did not discuss the night of the accident.

On the Web

- Read each day's report of "The Hard Road: Inside the Jennifer Porter Case" at www.sptimes.com/porter

- Readers can share their insights about the case at www.itsyourtimes.com

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