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Porter case sparks fairness discussion, push for action

Members of the NAACP say the case and others in nearby counties highlight racial disparities in the criminal justice system.

By CANDACE RONDEAUX, Times Staff Writer
Published November 15, 2005

TAMPA - Fair or not, the debate over Jennifer Porter's case is not over yet. Nearly two weeks after the former Muller Elementary School dance teacher was sentenced to house arrest and probation for her role in a deadly car accident, Tampa Bay area NAACP leaders said Monday that the case highlights racial disparities in the criminal justice system.

Hillsborough Circuit Judge Emmett Lamar Battles recently ordered Porter, 29, to serve two years of house arrest and three years' probation and to complete 500 hours of community service. In August, she pleaded guilty to leaving the scene of an accident involving death.

The March 2004 crash killed Bryant Wilkins, 13, and his 3-year-old brother Durontae Caldwell and injured their two siblings, Aquina Wilkins, 8, and LaJuan Davis, 2.

The accident and Porter's Nov. 5 sentencing have fueled an ongoing debate over whether race was a factor in determining her fate. On Monday, about a half-dozen members from local NAACP branches discussed the implications of Porter's case at a Tampa news conference.

Pointing to the recent case of William Thornton IV, an 18-year-old African-American Sumter County man who was sentenced to 30 years in prison for his role in an accident that left two women dead, Upper Pinellas NAACP president Nathaniel Ramsey said Porter's case exposed sharp racial divisions in Florida's courtrooms.

"This is just another instance that shows that justice is not blind but deaf also," Ramsey said.

Thornton's mother, Lola Thornton, was at the news conference and said family members and supporters plan to petition Gov. Jeb Bush and Attorney General Charlie Crist to review her son's case.

NAACP area director Pat Spencer called on local citizens to become more involved in changing in the justice system and announced plans to launch a court watch program. The program calls for trained volunteers to act as courtroom observers and to record information for a legal database that would help track racial disparities in the justice system.

The idea received support from Wachula resident Dana Christenson. Christenson and Tampa attorney John Trevena joined others at the news conference in expressing their concern about the fairness of Porter's sentence. They said the case of Jean Claude Meus was another instance of miscarried justice.

A Haitian-born truck driver, Meus was sentenced to 15 years in prison after his truck overturned on a dangerous curve in a highway in May 2001 and killed Christenson's sister and her 8-year-old niece. Christenson and her family are calling on the governor to grant Meus clemency.

Trevena said the sharp differences between the outcome in Porter's case and Meus' and Thornton's are symptomatic of serious inequities in Florida's courts.

The NAACP plans to hold a town hall meeting on Porter's case and the larger implications for the criminal justice system Dec. 1.

--Candace Rondeaux can be reached at 813 226-3337 or rondeaux@sptimes.com

[Last modified November 15, 2005, 03:00:33]


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