St. Petersburg Times: Special Report
The Hard Road
 
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Denial

By THOMAS FRENCH, CHRISTOPHER GOFFARD and JAMIE THOMPSON
Published November 16, 2005

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[Times photo: Willie J. Allen Jr.]
The Uhuru Movement protested the delay in Jennifer Porter's arrest.

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[Times photo (2004): Stefanie Boyar]
James and Lillian Porter, with their attorney Ralph Fernandez. A judge warned the Porters that they could go to jail for refusing to answer prosecutors' questions.

photoHillsborough State Attorney Mark Ober gathered his best prosecutors to hammer out what charge Jennifer Porter should face.

photoKim Seace, the assistant state attorney in charge of the case.

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[Times photo: Stefanie Boyar]
Attorney Barry Cohen spars with his personal trainer, Derek Millender, at Xtreme Fitness in South Tampa.

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[Times photo: Bob Croslin]
Cohen believed his greatest gift was empathy.

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[Times photo: Toni L. Sandis]
Lisa Wilkins and her attorney, Tom Parnell.

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[Times photo (2004): Skip O"Rourke]
Jennifer Porter surrendered at the jail on April 28, 2004, four weeks after the accident.

[Times map]

For Mark Ober, no public place had become safe from the Porter question. Mornings, when the Hillsborough State Attorney pulled his green Crown Victoria into the courthouse parking lot, he had become accustomed to seeing the angry man with the bullhorn, waiting to ambush him.

"Dirty lying dog!" the bullhorn man would thunder, while Ober got his briefcase out of his trunk.

At a speaking event, Ober ran into the same protester and extended his hand, greeting him as "brother." It was a term Ober used habitually with friends and strangers and people whose names he could not recall.

The protester, a black man, refused to shake.

"I'm not your motherf- - - - - - brother," he snapped.

The man belonged to the Uhuru Movement, a group that was outraged because weeks had gone by since the hit-and-run, and Ober's office had not yet charged Jennifer Porter. The Uhurus were not the only ones frustrated with the case. All over Tampa, cries for Porter's arrest were rising.

* * *

In Mark Ober's three years as Hillsborough County's top prosecutor, nothing had made his office a flashpoint for criticism like the Porter case. Stress gave him terrible headaches. He kept Tums on his desk.

Ober knew he could not control the spiral of public opinion. But he wanted to gauge one of the opinions that mattered most. One Friday in April 2004, he invited the mother of the dead children to his fifth-floor office in the courthouse annex. When Lisa Wilkins walked in, her lawyer and a religious adviser at her side, Ober was waiting. For the past three weeks, Lisa had never been far from tears. She was crying now.

Until the accident, no one with any clout had ever cared what Lisa thought about anything. Now she found herself in a sanctum of legal power, being treated with warmth and deference.

Ober knew strangers had been banging on Lisa's door, burning to portray her as a victim of a racist justice system.

Lisa said she didn't want to rush the investigation. She didn't want to turn her kids' deaths into a racial controversy. She was still living in the little apartment on 142nd Avenue. She couldn't wait to move away from all the noise surrounding the case.

Ober tried to reassure her about the investigation. The State Attorney's Office would be filing charges against Porter as soon as possible, he said. They were building their case, waiting for the findings of an accident reconstruction expert. They wanted to do it right.

* * *

For Mr. and Mrs. Porter, time had run out. Prosecutors couldn't compel their daughter to talk, as she had Fifth Amendment protection against self-incrimination. But they could try and force the parents to tell what they knew about the hit-and-run.

On April 15, officers served James and Lillian Porter with investigative subpoenas to appear at the State Attorney's office. Under the terms of the subpoenas, nothing the Porters said could be used against them, as long as they told the truth. However, prosecutors ultimately could file charges against the couple if they found independent evidence of any crimes.

The Porters arrived late with their own attorney, Ralph Fernandez. Beyond their names and social security numbers, they refused to answer any questions, invoking the Fifth Amendment. An assistant state attorney advised the couple that they could not take the Fifth, as they had immunity. Still, they wouldn't talk.

An emergency hearing was arranged before Judge Walter Heinrich. Lillian Porter arrived, her face pale, holding a blue sweater. Her husband put his hand on her shoulder. The judge warned the couple that he could send them to jail for six months if they didn't cooperate. He gave them the weekend to think it over.

"The last thing I want to do is put these people in jail," he told their lawyer. But, "I would do it if I have to."

Four days later, the Porters returned to court. They did not believe their daughter would survive if they went to jail, their lawyer told the judge. They would answer questions.

Their attorney tried to explain their reluctance to testify. "No parent, presumably under similar circumstances, would ever want to be placed in a position to render testimony that would help in the prosecution of a child," Fernandez said.

Later that day, Barry Cohen let the Porters know he wasn't pleased with how the proceedings had gone. He thought their attempt to take the Fifth had been disastrous, further inflaming public opinion against their daughter. Initially he had recommended they hire their own attorney, to prevent any appearance of a conflict of interest. But now he wanted them back under his wing. The couple placed the case entirely in Cohen's hands.

The same day, Jennifer Porter signed an affidavit acknowledging she had been driving the Toyota Echo. Cohen hoped it would assuage prosecutors who wanted proof of her involvement in the accident, and lessen the pressure on the family.

At the end of the affidavit, Porter wrote:

Please leave my parents alone.

* * *

"Okay," said the prosecutor. "Just focus on my question for a second. You've had many conversations with your daughter about how this happened, I'm sure. Is that true?"

James Porter, seated a few feet away, agreed. "We've talked about the accident, yes."

"On more than one occasion - "

"Yes."

"Based on all these conversations, what has she told you about how this crash occurred?"

"I don't believe she knows how it occurred."

Not good enough.

"What has she told you?" the prosecutor asked again.

"She told me that a body flew and hit her windshield," said Mr. Porter. "I asked her the question if she had seen anyone in the street, crossing the street. She told me, "Dad, no, it was dark . . . I didn't see anyone . . . The first thing that I knew is when a body flew and hit my windshield.' "

Now that Jennifer Porter's parents had agreed to give sworn statements, there would be no leaving them alone. In the days that followed the agreement, everyone in the family - other than Jennifer - was summoned separately to the State Attorney's Office in downtown Tampa, where Kim Seace waited with hours of questions.

Seace was the assistant state attorney in charge of the Porter case. She was a veteran prosecutor, the head of the state's Traffic Homicide Division. As the Porters gave their statements, one by one, Seace listened carefully. She knew that this was her chance to hear the family's account of what had happened on the night of the hit-and-run and in the days afterward.

All four who testified - James and Lillian Porter, their younger daughter, Kelly, and her live-in boyfriend, Kurt Doiron - said Jennifer had explained that a body had flown into her windshield. The first one to hear the awful news was Mrs. Porter, who was at home that Wednesday evening when she received a frantic phone call from Jennifer.

Her daughter, she remembered, was still on the road when she called, driving away from the scene. She was hysterical. At first, Mrs. Porter couldn't even make sense of what Jennifer was saying.

"I said, "Oh my God,' and I asked her to repeat it . . ."

So Jennifer told her again about the road, the body, the windshield.

"What else did she say?" Seace asked.

"She said that her windshield was about to crack open at any minute."

Mrs. Porter said she told her daughter to keep driving toward the family's private dance studio, where Jennifer had been headed before the accident.

"Why did you tell her that?"

"Because the studio is closer than our house."

Mrs. Porter called her husband, who was working the night shift at the post office. At first, she said, her husband wanted Jennifer to go back to the scene and turn herself in. But when Jennifer called back, she told her mother she couldn't do it.

"And she told me, "I can't, I can't.' " said Mrs. Porter.

What explanation had her daughter given, asked Seace.

"She was just crying. She wasn't making any sense. She didn't really say why . . . I don't think she was emotionally able to go back."

"Why?"

"Because she was afraid of what she would see, that maybe there was a dead body or whatever."

"Did you ever tell Jennifer, in the first two phone conversations, to call the police?"

"No."

"Why not?"

"I never thought of it."

The only other person home that evening was Kurt, Kelly's boyfriend. He and Mrs. Porter headed in his car to the studio to meet Jennifer. Before they reached her, though, they decided to go to 22nd Street. When they got there, they saw sheriff's cruisers, ambulances, a section of the road blocked off. Mrs. Porter noticed a man standing in the street - not a police officer, just someone standing there - and she rolled down her window and asked him what had happened. He told her that a man had hit four children and that two of the children were dead.

"Oh my God," Kurt remembered Mrs. Porter saying. "Two of them are dead. Two kids are dead."

Mrs. Porter grabbed Kurt's hand and began to cry.

Kim Seace asked Mrs. Porter about this person by the road, and how he'd told them that the hit-and-run driver was male.

"Were you relieved in that he was saying a man had done this and not a woman?"

"Yes."

Kurt drove to the dance studio. Jennifer was there by now; she kept calling her mother.

"She said she was going to go to Publix and take all the pills she could buy," Mrs. Porter remembered. "And I said to Kurt, 'Drive as fast as you can, we have to get there.' "

Arriving at the studio, they found Jennifer's Toyota Echo parked in the back of the strip mall. Inside the studio, Jennifer was alone. She'd had a private lesson scheduled, but she had canceled it. Her mother saw that she was trembling, still hysterical. She wrapped her arms around her daughter.

Jennifer did not know that anyone had died in the hit-and-run. Her mother didn't want to tell her yet. She just wanted to get her home. So Kurt took Jennifer in his car, and Mrs. Porter drove the damaged Echo back to the family's house in Land O'Lakes.

As Kurt related this part of the story, Seace stopped him to ask whether there had been any discussion of calling the police, now that he and Mrs. Porter knew two children were dead.

"No," he said.

"Did it come into your head?"

"Yes."

Then why, the prosecutor asked, did he not vocalize it?

He told Seace he was trying to help the family. He wanted to stay out of it, he said, and do whatever the Porters decided should be done.

What about his conscience? Didn't he see the necessity of pointing out to the family that things were out of control and that the police needed to be notified before the Echo was moved?

"No."

When Kurt and Jennifer and her mother reached the house, Mr. Porter was waiting. The family gathered in the living room and sat quietly. Kurt broke the news to Jennifer that two children had died.

Jennifer, he said, imploded. She said she wanted to kill herself. She said she should be the one who was dead, not the children. By now, the family said, she'd changed her mind about returning to the scene. Again and again, she said she needed to go back and turn herself in.

Mr. Porter told her no. He decided that they needed to get her a lawyer first. They needed to get through the night, and then the next day he would figure out who to call.

By now it was past midnight. The Echo was parked in the driveway. Mr. Porter decided they needed to move it into the garage. Though he had converted it into a small dance studio years before, the garage was mostly used these days for storage. He and Kurt cleared some boxes to make room, then Kurt drove the Echo inside. As Kurt watched, Mr. Porter wiped away blood from the driver's side window and door.

Mr. Porter said he cleaned the blood because Jennifer was suicidal and he did not want her to see something so disturbing.

"I really thought her - with her emotional state, the way it was, that she really was - I was really concerned. I didn't know, you know, what was going to happen with her."

The next morning, Mr. Porter made a decision. Despite the trauma of the night before, he told the family, including Jennifer, to stick to their normal schedule that Thursday until he found a lawyer. Mr. and Mrs. Porter went to their jobs. Jennifer took one of the family cars, a green Camaro, and drove 12 miles by herself to Muller Elementary to teach her classes. Kelly and Kurt took a friend to Universal Studios, as they already had planned.

On this point Kim Seace stopped Mr. Porter. How was it possible, she asked, that he and his family could have gone about their business that day? Two children were dead.

"You don't find it callous that Kelly and her boyfriend were enjoying a day at Universal Studios?"

Mr. Porter said he hadn't known that Kelly and Kurt were headed for Universal. He said he'd been trying to hold things together as best he could while he found a lawyer. He said, in retrospect, that he regretted encouraging everyone to go about their business.

"Do you think that's a little cold, though?" said Seace.

Mr. Porter tried to answer. But he kept stopping and starting. He seemed lost.

"Maybe," he finally said, "I did not make the best decision in this regard."

In their testimony, both Mr. and Mrs. Porter acknowledged that the decision had been especially difficult for Jennifer. At one point, she called her mother from Muller and said she couldn't take it, that she had to turn herself in. Her mom told her to finish the day out.

The questions kept coming. What about Jennifer's decision to park the Echo behind the dance studio? What about Mr. Porter deciding to move the car into the garage? What about the blood that Mr. Porter had wiped away?

Weren't all of these things proof that the family had been trying to hide the truth?

Mr. Porter denied it all.

"I don't think anybody was trying to hide anything from anybody."

* * *

When Lisa Wilkins went outside, people stared. She heard the whispers, knew the box they wanted to put her in.

"Just a black girl who lived in the 'hood with a whole bunch of kids and no daddy," she said.

The judgments were all over the radio, all through the beauty salons. Strangers had asked the Sheriff's Office to investigate a possible charge of neglect. Where had she been when her children tried to cross that road? What kind of mother was she?

"I know I was good to my children," Lisa would tell friends, when they called to ask if she had heard the latest denunciation. "God knows I was good to my children, and that's all that matters."

People kept stopping her on the street. Lisa could barely keep up with their questions. Did she really want to keep her white lawyer? Who was she going to sue? What did she think should happen to the schoolteacher? As if the whole weight of ensuring justice lay on her.

None of these people had known Bryant or Durontae, had ever changed their diapers or put Band-Aids on their knees. They didn't understand how memory tortured Lisa, how she could look at her fingers and still feel the pressure of Bryant's tiny hand, as a toddler, wrapped around her pinkie for protection.

They weren't the ones trying to soothe a traumatized 8-year-old girl who couldn't understand what had happened to her.

"Why did that lady do this to us, Mommy?" Aquina would ask.

Aquina wore a brace on her shattered leg and complained of terrible headaches. The girl used to sprinting everywhere was now stuck in a wheelchair. At night she would wake up crying, saying "No, no," reaching for her dead brothers. When her mom made lunch, Aquina would remind her she had forgotten Durontae's portion.

"Where's Tay-Tay's?" she would say.

She told her mom she wished she had died with Bryant and Durontae. She said it was her mom's fault that they were gone. If you hadn't let us go to the park, she'd say, my brothers wouldn't be dead.

Lisa couldn't do anything but hold Aquina and let her cry.

* * *

Barry Cohen had changed his mind.

Early in the investigation, he had promised that Jennifer Porter would cooperate with detectives and submit to an interview. In the weeks since, the Sheriff's Office had sent repeated requests that he honor that commitment. Now, Cohen had decided against it. He had detected, he said, a foul smell about the integrity of the investigation.

He thought detectives had stopped looking for the white van, determined to build their case around Porter's Echo. And he was angry that the Sheriff's Office wasn't allowing his own forensic expert access to the car. The way he saw it, sheriff's officials planned to use this case to get their revenge for the Aisenberg investigation.

Later, sheriff's officials would say that his allegations were simply not true. Deputies, they said, never stopped looking for the white van, and always believed the driver could have been a crucial witness. Additionally, investigators needed time to collect evidence from Porter's Echo before turning it over to defense experts. Cohen's team, they point out, already had photographed Porter's car before handing it over.

As for the Aisenberg case, Col. Greg Brown said it was irrelevant to this investigation.

"We're talking about two injured children and two children dead in the street," he said. "Who in their right mind would turn that into the Aisenberg case?"

* * *

Cohen had made a career of fighting the powerful. He cast himself as an outsider who defended the underdog against adversaries with deep pockets and tremendous resources.

In his mind, it all went back to his youth, and the night he realized his family was poor. He was 8 or 9, watching his father cook at a Jacksonville country club. Cohen remembered venturing out of the kitchen and into a room filled with men in suits and ties. Then one of the men grabbed Cohen by the arm and took him back to the kitchen.

The man, Cohen says, placed him on an old Coca-Cola crate not far from his dad.

"I had to sit there watching my dad sweat and serve those people in order to make enough money to live on. He didn't realize people were disrespecting him," he says. "That changed my whole life."

When Cohen was 12 or 13 years old, the family moved to Tampa, where his father ran a junk yard. Cohen tried to make his dad proud by becoming a point guard on the basketball team and student body president at Plant High.

"My opponent didn't even carry his home room," Cohen says with glee, nearly 50 years later.

He was still in junior high when he had his first experience in court. He was charged with driving a car without a license. He represented himself.

He recalls the judge looking down at him and barking: "Guilty or innocent?"

"Guilty, with explanation," Cohen replied.

"Fifteen dollars or fifteen days?" the judge asked.

"Your honor . . ." Cohen pressed.

"Fifteen dollars or fifteen days!" the judge demanded.

Fifteen dollars it was.

Cohen started skipping classes to watch trials at the courthouse. The lawyers, in their seersucker suits and straw hats, seemed elegant, powerful. Cohen decided he wanted to be just like them. He paid his way through St. Petersburg Junior College with his own junk route, collecting discarded radiators and copper wire in an old silver pickup truck. Then came a criminology degree from Florida State, a law degree at Mercer University, and four years as a Hillsborough prosecutor. By 1970, when Cohen started his own criminal practice, he already had a reputation.

When a teary-eyed mother arrived at the Tampa courthouse looking for a lawyer, a clerk gave her some advice.

"There's a cocky little Jewish guy roaming around here who isn't afraid of anybody," the clerk said. "He would be my choice."

The mother, Deloras Johnson, hired Cohen to defend her son, who was charged with assaulting a police officer. Cohen noticed that police had described their attacker as wearing boots. He ordered his client's jail booking photo, and saw that he had been wearing tennis shoes. At trial, when officers described the assailant's boots, Cohen dragged a blown-up photo into the courtroom and railed about those sneakers. As Cohen's parents watched from the gallery, a jury acquitted Johnson's son.

"I don't know who cried the hardest," Johnson recalled, "Barry's mother, his father or me."

Cohen became a lawyer who took big cases and won. He defended Henry Hill, a New York mobster whose story inspired the movie Goodfellas. In the 1980s, he represented longtime Hillsborough state attorney E.J. Salcines, a target of a federal investigation. Cohen went to war with U.S. Attorney Robert Merkle, taking out a full-page ad in the Tampa Tribune that read, "Merkle's McCarthyism mentality is a threat to innocent people." Salcines was not indicted, and is now a judge on the 2nd District Court of Appeal.

Even that municipal judge who shouted at Cohen years earlier - $15 or 15 days - showed up in his office one day seeking legal advice.

"You owe me $15," Cohen told him.

The judge didn't remember Cohen, but listened to the story, then pulled out his wallet.

"The wheel of life," Cohen liked to say, "always comes back around."

He had a boyish energy that drew people in. He could be combative, but also emotional and sensitive. One of his favorite books was Sun Tzu's The Art of War. Another was Journey to the Heart, a touchy-feely meditation on how to free the soul. He passed out hundreds of copies to friends and colleagues.

Warm up to people, the book advised. Warm up to life. Warm up to yourself.

At work, he could be imperious. He marched through the halls in his ostrich-skin boots and dark blue Levis, forever checking on the progress of his colleagues' cases.

"He is a gargantuan pain in the a--," said attorney Lyann Goudie, who worked with Cohen on the Porter case. "Barry's way is the only way. But usually, his way proves to be right."

All that he was, Cohen poured into his cases. He did things that other lawyers thought were bold; sometimes they thought he went beyond bold. When Cohen defended a lawyer charged with attempted rape, he had his 17-year-old office clerk befriend the accuser, getting her to confess that she made up the allegations. Cohen called it "creative lawyering." The prosecutor filed a grievance with the Florida Bar, which cleared Cohen.

"He's not afraid to go where others fear to tread," said Cohen's friend, Larry Turner, also an attorney. "That's not to say he's unethical. You don't twist the nose of government as often and hard as he has without keeping your house in order."

Cohen tended to get emotionally involved in his cases. In his mind, it was his greatest gift. He empathized. He went to his clients' homes, met their children, ate supper with them.

Cohen worked all the time. His three children used to fight over who got to spend Saturday at the office with dad. He was a disciplinarian. The children called him "The Hammer." When he refused to let his daughter Geena go to a party after her high school prom, she mumbled a profanity in Spanish. Her dad made her write a 25-page paper on respect.

When the kids quarreled, he convened minitrials, allowing them to hire each other as attorneys and call neighborhood kids as witnesses. The children could say whatever they wanted without getting into trouble. He explained to them the concept of immunity.

His professional success came at a personal cost. His first marriage, to the mother of three of his children, ended in 1990 after 29 years. His second marriage lasted six years. In 1998, he married a psychologist, Barbara Casasa Cohen, and had another son.

At 64, as he took on Jennifer Porter's defense, Cohen was a long way from that Coca-Cola crate of his youth. In the lobby he had hung a large portrait of his father, who died before seeing all his son would become. Cohen still cried when he talked about his dad.

At this stage in the Porter case, the main challenge before his defense team was avoiding vehicular homicide charges. No matter what Porter had done after the accident, Cohen did not believe she was guilty of homicide. She had not been drinking or on drugs. She had not been driving recklessly. She did not deserve, Cohen believed, to be imprisoned for up to 60 years, the maximum sentence for two counts of vehicular homicide.

Cohen had vowed to protect her.

* * *

The same issue on Cohen's mind - what charge Jennifer Porter deserved - was on the table at the State Attorney's Office.

Every week, Mark Ober gathered his brain trust, a handful of his best and most experienced prosecutors, in a room on the fifth floor of the State Attorney's Office. He called it his Homicide Committee, and its work represented one of the most critical, and secretive, processes of the criminal justice system.

The committee determined who would be charged with the most serious crimes, and what the precise charge should be. Ober's lawyers came armed with case law and statute books. They fought over the legal issues. They debated what the defense might do. Then, Ober would take a vote around the table. He could veto the decisions, but he put great stock in his top lieutenants' judgment.

Ober was a bear-sized, gregarious Republican who liked to fish for bass and drink Old Milwaukee. His good-old-boy manner masked shrewdness. He had spent two decades handling high-profile cases as a prosecutor and a defense attorney. Ober's style of decision-making in a case as big as Porter's represented a radical departure from the methods of his predecessor, Harry Lee Coe. Courthouse observers suspected Coe would not have hesitated to bury Jennifer Porter under the law. Charge her with vehicular homicide. Quell the public outrage. Let the jury sort it out.

Instead, Ober put the Porter question to his homicide committee.

Kim Seace, the prosecutor in charge of the case, was at the table that day. So was Detective Michael Cherup, one of the lead investigators from the Sheriff's Office. Cherup's role was to set out the arguments for vehicular homicide charges against Porter. Despite all the witness accounts of a white van, the detective had concluded that Porter's Echo was the only car involved in the hit-and-run. Fibers torn loose from the clothing of three of Lisa Wilkins' children - Durontae, Aquina and Bryant - had been found on the front of the Echo.

The detective had calculated Porter's speed at 37 to 43 mph in a 30-mph zone. When a car stops suddenly, the bumper sinks. But the Echo's bumper broke Aquina's and Durontae's legs at level height. That suggested Porter never hit her brakes.

There was more. As Porter approached the intersection of 22nd Street and 142nd Avenue, she should have seen signs indicating a playground and crosswalk were just ahead. Had she been paying attention, Cherup argued, she could have spotted the kids in time to stop. All of it added up, in Cherup's mind, to vehicular homicide.

But would jurors buy it? Would such a charge even survive a judge's scrutiny and make it to a jury?

To convict Porter of vehicular homicide, prosecutors would need to prove two things: that the Echo had killed the kids, and that the crash had stemmed from Porter's recklessness. Each part presented problems.

For one thing, there were conflicting witness accounts, talk of multiple vehicles, the white van. At first, witnesses had led the Sheriff's Office to believe that one vehicle had flung the children into another vehicle's path.

Now, prosecutors would have to persuade a jury that all those witnesses were mistaken. They would have to show that only Porter's Echo was involved. Trust the physical evidence, they would argue, and ignore what those people thought they saw.

Cohen could exploit the discrepancy to the hilt. He might insist, at the top of his lungs, that another car hit the children first.

The Medical Examiner had concluded that Bryant and Durontae suffered broken necks and died almost immediately. Even if Porter had stopped, she could not have saved them.

Furthermore, the state's accident reconstruction expert had shored up the Sheriff's Office conclusion that Porter had not been speeding egregiously. Under recent case law, it was not enough that Porter was driving 7 to 13 mph over the limit. For vehicular homicide to stick, she had to have been reckless in some other way.

She'd been at school all day. There was no evidence she had been drinking or using drugs.

And the defense would argue that it had been dark. That streetlights were out. That the kids had not used the crosswalk. That it could have happened to anyone.

Around the table, Ober's attorneys batted the arguments back and forth. Some prosecutors argued for vehicular homicide.

But when it came time for a vote, it wasn't close. An overwhelming majority concluded that Porter would be charged with leaving the scene of a crash involving death. Under sentencing guidelines, that left her facing 22 months to 15 years in prison.

Detective Cherup disagreed with the less serious charge, so much so that he expressed his disagreement in his investigative report. He would not be alone in that feeling.

* * *

Lisa Wilkins' lawyer tried his best to explain what Porter was about to be charged with.

Tom Parnell had been recommended to Lisa by the funeral home director who had buried her sons. Parnell explained to Lisa that prosecutors didn't want to throw a charge at Porter, only so that she could skate away.

It made no sense to Lisa.

"She killed my babies," she said. "How can they not charge her with murder?"

* * *

Porter surrendered at the jail just before 10 the next morning.

A deputy almost twice her size led her through the throngs of reporters and camera crews gathered outside the entrance. Cohen followed a step or two behind.

Inside, officers took her fingerprints. They wrote down the charge, noted that her complexion was fair and that her eyes and hair were brown, that she was 5-3 and weighed 140 pounds. They snapped the booking photo that would appear on the next morning's front pages.

The deadness of Porter's eyes - the way they seemed to stare into nothing - would be the first thing many people noticed about the photo. Aside from that, the most striking detail would be the care that had been devoted to her makeup. Her eyes appeared to be dusted with eyeshadow, her lips precisely painted.

Other prisoners cheered and clapped and greeted her with a round of applause and insults.

"Finally!"

It took several hours for the officers to finish their paperwork and a bondsman to arrange for Porter's $7,500 bail. Then the bondsman led her back outside, through more reporters, more cameras following her every step. A woman approached, yelling one word at Porter, over and over.

"Murderer! Murderer! Murderer!"

* * *

Cohen considered it a huge victory that Porter had avoided the two counts of vehicular homicide. Now instead of facing up to 60 years in prison, she was looking at no more than 15.

The attorney did not believe the facts had warranted vehicular homicide charges. But he also knew that Mark Ober had been under tremendous public pressure to punish Porter as severely as possible. Cohen thought his own reputation had balanced out that pressure. With a less skilled lawyer, Cohen believed, prosecutors likely would have threatened vehicular homicide to persuade Porter to take a plea deal for the lesser charge of leaving the scene. And other lawyers might not have a couple hundred thousand dollars of their own money to fight the case.

Now, as he contemplated his next move, he drew two sets of parallel lines on a legal pad. Above the left set of lines, he wrote:

The soft road.

Above the right:

The hard road.

The soft road was what Cohen was hoping for. It was a courteous, respectful attempt to resolve a case with a plea deal. It was always the less risky path. In this case, Cohen wanted a deal that did not include prison time for Porter.

If his attempts failed, then Cohen would take the hard road. That meant a trial. Cohen would resist it, because it was always a risk. It was a fundamental lesson from The Art of War:

Unless endangered, do not engage in warfare.

Cohen knew what many lawyers around town were saying. The case was not defendable; Porter had left four children in the road, two of them dead. If he took it to trial, he would lose. Some hoped he would. After all these years, they wanted to see Barry Cohen take it on the chin.

"I've taken it on the chin," Cohen groused. "I have two chins. I get hit on the chin and I wipe it off and I put my chin back out there. You have to be a f - - - - - - moron to go into the ring thinking you're not gonna take it on the chin. Muhammad Ali, greatest fighter who ever lived, took it on the chin plenty of times."

No matter what those other lawyers said, Cohen had no intention of pleading Porter out with prison time.

* * *

A few blocks from Barry Cohen's elegant suite, Assistant State Attorney Kim Seace worked in a drab warren of bureaucratic offices. Except for the name on the framed law school diploma and the faces in the family photos, it was tough to distinguish one prosecutor's office from another.

Seace was nothing like Cohen. She was not flamboyant. Her style was quiet, not flashy. Among her colleagues, she was known as smart, unassuming, a workhorse. Boxes of evidence and case files and depositions cluttered her small office, stacked on every surface, including the couch.

Around the courthouse, people were starting to wonder how Seace would fare if the case went to trial. How long would it take for a rank-and-file government lawyer to wither before Cohen's cunning?

Cohen disliked Seace. He made no secret of it. He described her as "weak" and "perfunctory." And yet Seace had never deferred to him. She didn't flinch at his name, didn't seem to care that he was a legend. She had never treated Barry Cohen like Barry Cohen.

As the case moved forward, Cohen sent her an e-mail. As was his habit, he alluded to what lay before them as a war. In her reply, Seace dispensed with the metaphor. She wrote:

It is not a war. It is the pursuit of justice.

COMING FRIDAY: Part four, as the lawyers maneuver, Jennifer Porter and Lisa Wilkins meet face to face.

* * *

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 detailing the case from inside the Hillsborough State Attorney's Office are based on interviews with Mark Ober, Kim Seace and other prosecutors. The section on the Porter family's testimony is based on transcripts of their sworn statements. Barry Cohen's background information comes from interviews with him and others who've known him through the decades. The sections on Lisa Wilkins are from Times interviews with her and her lawyer, Tom Parnell.

On the Web

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

[Last modified November 16, 2005, 14:29:23]

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