By THOMAS FRENCH, CHRISTOPHER GOFFARD and JAMIE THOMPSON
Published November 18, 2005
[Times photo: Keri Wiginton]
At the one-year anniversary memorial service for her sons, Bryant and Durontae, Lisa Wilkins sat with her daughters, Heaven and 9-year-old Aquina.
[Times photo (2004): Stefanie Boyar]
The Rev. Michelle Patty was a religious adviser to Lisa Wilkins following the death of her children. Patty was the only other person in the room when Jennifer Porter apologized to Wilkins.
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Bessel van der Kolk, an expert in the field of psychological trauma, said Porter's actions were a classic example of acute stress reaction.
[Times photo: Ken Helle]]
On the day plea negotiations officially collapsed, Kim Seace talks with Barry Cohen in court.
[Times photo (2004): Thomas M. Goethe]
From the beginning of the case, Barry Cohen knew it was important to reach out to Tampa's black ministers. One day outside the courthouse, he shook hands with the Rev. James Warren and the Rev. Frank Williams.
Porter with Barry Cohen: Why didn't she stop?
[Times photo: Cherie Diez]
[Times photo: Keri Wiginton]
LaJuan, LaVontre and Aquina play at the family's new home.
[Times photo: Keri Wiginton]
In early 2005, Lisa Wilkins moved to a $270,000 two-story house with five bedrooms and a pool in Land O'Lakes. A portrait of Tupac Shakur hangs on one wall.
Another session, the same nightmare. The psychiatrist listened to her patient, describing the scenario that kept troubling her sleep.
Jennifer Porter told her doctor that once again Lisa Wilkins had appeared before her in the night. Wilkins was looking at her, pointing her finger.
"You killed my children," she said.
The psychiatrist was not surprised. The dream was obvious enough. Her patient was punishing herself, even as she slept. In months of sessions, Porter had spoken endlessly about the guilt and shame that consumed her. She could not bring herself to get behind the wheel of a car again. She told the doctor she was not sure she deserved to ever be happy again. As a teacher, she found it inconceivable that she was responsible, even inadvertently, for the deaths of two children.
"Will I ever have a day when I'm not thinking about this?" Porter asked.
* * *
The psychiatrist's name was Dr. Lycia Alexander-Guerra. She was trained not just in psychiatry but in psychoanalysis. She had gone to medical school in Boston, worked in a children's psychiatric center in the Bronx. For the past eight years, she had been in private practice in Tampa.
Alexander-Guerra had accepted Porter as a patient in April 2004. Their first session together had been on the Monday after the hit-and-run, the same day as the press conference in Barry Cohen's law office, where Porter had read her statement in front of the cameras. Later, Alexander-Guerra would talk about watching Porter on TV and being struck by how stiff she appeared.
"To me," the psychiatrist said, "she still looked like a person who was struggling to hold herself together."
At Cohen's request, Alexander-Guerra had worked with Porter ever since. Cohen had asked the psychiatrist to see Porter because he thought she was suicidal and needed help recovering from the trauma of that night. Cohen says he encouraged Porter to tell the truth as best she could. If the therapy was going to help, she needed to be open with her psychiatrist. And if Alexander-Guerra was ever called into court, she needed to be able to testify that in her professional opinion, Porter had been honest with her.
In fact, Alexander-Guerra would eventually testify. And she would affirm that she had found her patient completely credible. Alexander-Guerra understood the public outrage; she, too, felt for Lisa Wilkins. But in her sessions with Porter, Alexander-Guerra said she had detected no evidence of indifference in her patient. As far as she could tell, Porter's expressions of remorse were genuine.
Porter could describe the events leading up to the accident in great detail. She would see herself leaving school that Wednesday evening, driving down 22nd Street, headed to the studio to teach her private lesson. Then, she said, a body flew into her windshield.
There was no warning, Porter said. She told the psychiatrist that she did not see anyone in the road beforehand. To her, the moment was a random explosion in her consciousness. There was no chance to slam on the brakes, not even a split second to prepare for what was about to happen.
"This was totally unexpected," said Alexander-Guerra, "as though somebody had dropped from the sky on her windshield."
In that instant, Porter said she had the impression it might have been a child. Then she flashed on the thought that it might have been one of her students at Muller Elementary. And then, after that, Porter said she recalled almost nothing.
The doctor listened carefully, trying to learn anything she could about what had happened afterward. But Porter, she said, simply could not recall. She just kept driving.
The next thing she remembered, Porter said, was hearing a crack from her broken windshield. The sound seemed to bring her back. She picked up her cell phone and placed the first of many hysterical calls to her mother.
By the time of the first call, 18 minutes had elapsed since the hit-and-run. Prosecutors had established this through phone records.
What had happened in those 18 minutes? Porter said she did not know. She said she could not remember how she drove, what she did, what she felt.
Alexander-Guerra went through the account repeatedly with her patient. She was forming a theory, one that she would eventually share with Cohen.
The psychiatrist thought perhaps they had been asking the wrong question about Porter's behavior. Maybe it wasn't a matter of why she'd decided to drive away that night. Maybe it was whether she'd made a decision at all.
* * *
That summer, Lisa Wilkins gave birth to her seventh child. She named her Heaven. The pregnancy had been difficult. Lisa had been too grief-stricken to eat very much and had worried the baby would be undernourished. When Heaven was born, she weighed only 5 pounds.
As Lisa lay in her hospital bed the day after the birth, she awaited anesthesia for a tubal ligation. Her lawyer, Tom Parnell, had urged her to have the procedure. He said she didn't need any more kids to care for. Lisa agreed. She signed the paperwork.
Then she had a vision of Bryant, one of her dead sons. She heard him saying it wasn't time yet. She told the doctors to forget it. Parnell wasn't happy, but there was no telling Lisa what to do.
Lisa had been cleared of child neglect in the deaths of Bryant and Durontae. After looking into complaints about her parenting, the State Attorney's Office had decided it was reasonable for her to have placed the other children in the care of Bryant, who was just shy of 14, as they went to the park just up the block.
In a letter to the Hillsborough Sheriff's Office, a prosecutor had written:
. . . (I)t is a common practice for teenagers to be put into a position of responsibility over younger children, either for pay as babysitters, or as a familial responsibility as in this case.
Even so, Lisa blamed herself for letting the children go that day. Guilt was consuming her. Her hair was coming out in clumps on her comb.
The gossip around her was becoming uglier. Inevitably, there was speculation about money. Tom Parnell had been pursuing the possibility of lawsuits. The logical targets were the Porters, the county, and Tampa Electric Co., because some of its streetlights had been out at the accident site.
People wondered whether a financial settlement might soften Lisa's fury at Jennifer Porter, influencing the case. Lisa knew what they were saying.
" "Give this black girl some money,' " she said, " "and she'll drop everything.' "
* * *
The case followed him everywhere. In the restroom at a Devil Rays game, a man standing at the sink looked over.
"Aren't you Barry Cohen the lawyer?" he asked.
"Yes, I am," Cohen said.
"You represent some of the worst criminals," the man said. "I hope you got some good seats with their money."
Recounting it a few minutes later to a Times reporter, Cohen wondered out loud if the man had been thinking of Jennifer Porter.
"If the same thing happened to his daughter," he said, "I'd be the first one he'd come to."
Of all the high-profile cases Cohen had worked, none seemed as divisive as this one. People wanted Porter to pay for fleeing. The anger was most palpable in the black community. The NAACP had questioned whether race played a role in Porter being charged only with leaving the scene of a fatal accident, and not with vehicular homicide. The NAACP called on the FBI to investigate.
Cohen had vowed to take the case to trial unless he could secure a plea agreement that would not require Porter to spend any time behind bars. To him, the Porter case was no longer just about the facts. In many people's minds, it had become a crucible for race and justice. One of the challenges before him, then, was to refocus public opinion.
He started small. He invited a dozen black ministers to his office, telling them he wanted to talk about the case and to begin a larger discussion about race and justice. Over a dinner of steak, salmon and vegetables, Cohen told them how devastated his client was. He also shared a few details of his emerging defense strategy. From what he knew so far, Cohen did not believe Porter had struck the children first. The white van had. The same white van, he said, that investigators hadn't found.
Cohen thought some of the ministers mistrusted him. But over time, he hoped they would see that Porter did not deserve to go to prison. He hoped that sentiment would begin to trickle out in community meetings and churches and ultimately up to the offices of prosecutors.
But of all the people Cohen hoped to sway, one was key. He had to reach Lisa Wilkins. He had to show her that putting Porter behind bars would solve nothing. Ideally, he would ask Wilkins to speak in court on Porter's behalf. He needed to persuade Wilkins to forgive.
As he worked all these strategies, Cohen stayed in close touch with his client. He knew that Porter was fragile. Since the accident she'd struggled with insomnia; she had always been a night owl, but now she was having difficulty falling asleep before 3 or 4. Sometimes, in those quiet hours, Porter would sign onto the computer and e-mail her lawyer a question about the case.
Cohen was an early riser, usually awake and already checking his e-mail well before dawn. So when Porter wrote him in the middle of the night, he would usually write her back within the hour. He wanted her to know he was listening. He wanted her to have tangible proof that somebody was on her side, even at 4 a.m.
* * *
The prosecutor had a different idea of what justice would require.
Kim Seace, the assistant state attorney in charge of the Porter case, had heard about Cohen's quiet campaign to turn public opinion. Seace was not impressed. Jennifer Porter, she believed, deserved to go to prison.
One of the lead investigators had already concluded that if Porter had been paying attention to the road that evening, she would have seen the children in time to stop. Seace wondered if something had distracted Porter just before the impact. Had she been adjusting the car radio? Applying makeup? Using her cell phone? Investigators had found no record of a call at the time of the accident. Of course, if she had been in the process of punching in a number, it would not have shown up.
There was no evidence to prove what, if anything, might have distracted her. But there were the sworn statements Porter's family had given to Seace. Months later, the hundreds of questions the family had answered still provided the most detailed description of what the family had and hadn't done in the hours and days after the accident.
Seace kept returning to the transcripts of the statements. Again and again, Porter's parents had resisted accepting that Jennifer bore any responsibility for Bryant's and Durontae's deaths. In one surrealistic exchange, Mr. Porter had refused to even acknowledge that his daughter's car had struck the children.
"What is Jennifer's belief of how she hit the kids?" Seace asked him.
"I don't understand your phrasing of the question," said James Porter. "Because she never told me that she hit any kids . . . The only thing she told me that she remembers, as far as that goes, is that a body flew and hit her windshield."
"Well," said Seace, "she saw a body."
"Hit her windshield . . . Right. Correct."
"She saw her car hit a human being."
"No, she saw one hit her car, hit her windshield."
Seace had hammered away on this point. Hadn't Mr. Porter seen the damage to the Toyota? Hadn't he seen human hair lodged in the broken windshield? Did he really take issue with the fact that his daughter's car had struck a human being?
"Yes," Mr. Porter said. "I do."
Then he said he had no idea. Then he pointed out, again, that the body could have been thrown into his daughter's windshield.
"Don't you think that's the same thing?" Seace asked.
"I'm just telling you - you know, I don't really know."
Seace knew firsthand what it was like to be involved in a terrible accident. Ten years before, a drunk driver had smashed into her car. Her left foot was nearly severed. She still walked with a limp. In cold weather, Seace could feel the rods and pins that held her ankle together.
She knew the frustration that victims felt watching a case move slowly through the system. She did not want to let down Lisa and her children.
At her desk, Seace paged through the transcripts, looking for clues. In one exchange, she had pressed Lillian Porter to explain her daughter's decision to drive away from the accident.
"Did she tell you why she didn't just stay there?"
"She was scared," said Mrs. Porter.
"Because she didn't want to see a body, you know, possibly dead . . . I think she was also scared because I always warned her about that area."
"So why didn't she just go a couple of blocks and pull over at a public restaurant or gas station and - "
"Because I think she was not thinking straight. She was so panicky, so scared, that she went into shock."
"You think she was in shock?"
"Yes, I do."
And yet, Seace noted, Jennifer drove herself to Muller Elementary the next morning.
"Was she okay to drive Thursday?" Seace asked.
"She drove Thursday," said Mrs. Porter.
Seace repeated her question.
"Was she okay to drive Thursday?"
"Yes, she was."
"She seemed fine, you weren't concerned about her driving by herself?"
Later that day, Jennifer taught classes at her dance studio. How did she get from Muller to the studio?
"She drove," said Mrs. Porter.
Seace pointed out that Mr. Porter worked the night shift at the post office and had been home that day. Why hadn't he driven Jennifer to school?
"We didn't think of it," said Mrs. Porter. "I don't think that any of us were thinking straight."
Seace returned Mrs. Porter to the question of why her daughter had not gone back to the accident scene and turned herself in. Had anything prevented Jennifer from doing that?
"We told her not to go back," said Mrs. Porter.
"Okay, but she's 28. She's a big girl."
"She looks to us for support."
"Is she mentally immature for 28?"
"No . . . She's mature, but she wasn't thinking straight."
Seace had asked Mr. Porter the same question.
"Is Jennifer immature for 28?"
"No," he said. "Not at all."
"Do you still tell her what to do?"
"I don't tell her what to do. I - when she seeks my advice or my opinion on something, I give it to her."
So if Jennifer had decided she didn't want to teach at Muller on Thursday, would he have forced her to go anyway?
"I would not have forced her."
To Seace, all of the evidence showed that the Porters had been determined, especially in that first day or so, to keep Jennifer's involvement a secret. It wasn't until Thursday night, when the Sheriff's Office announced they were searching for a Toyota Echo, that the family had called a lawyer.
Seace had asked Kelly Porter what her older sister had shared about the accident. Had Jennifer told her how fast she'd been going?
"That wasn't mentioned to me," Kelly answered.
"You never asked?"
"No. I try not to ask her questions."
Reading through the family's testimony, Seace saw the same pattern of denial, again and again. An unwillingness to even think about what had happened.
Late on the night of the accident, Kurt Doiron, Kelly's boyfriend, had moved the damaged Echo from the driveway into the garage. Why, Seace asked, did he do that? Because Mr. Porter had asked him, Doiron said.
"Were you guys trying to hide it?"
"Then why not just leave it in the driveway?"
"I don't know."
Seace asked Doiron about the days after the accident, when he and the Porter family moved temporarily to the Tampa home of Lillian Porter's parents. Had they decided to stay there, Seace asked, on the advice of an attorney? Doiron said he didn't know.
"So it's fair to say that you guys were hiding out?"
"I don't want to use the word "hiding.' "
"What would you use?"
"We were just away."
* * *
Suddenly, Lisa Wilkins was no longer poor.
The woman who had spent years drifting between small, flaking apartments had moved into a beautiful new home in Land O'Lakes.
She was accustomed to owning nothing. Now, in the spring of 2005, she found herself in a suburban enclave of tidily trimmed lawns, living in a $270,000 two-story house with five bedrooms and a pool. It stood at the end of a cul-de-sac in a gated, mostly white community.
Lisa loved the quiet and anonymity of her new neighborhood. She felt she had needed to escape Tampa, and her unwelcome notoriety. She furnished her living room with a big-screen TV, a sofa set from Rooms to Go and a large portrait of Tupac Shakur.
Lisa had no job, no savings. Clearly, she had been compensated in some way for the deaths and injuries of her children. But where had the money come from?
No lawsuits had been filed, not even against Tampa Electric Co. for the broken streetlights. Asked why there was no lawsuit against Tampa Electric, Lisa's lawyer, Tom Parnell, would only say that it wasn't necessary. To those familiar with the legal system, that indicated a settlement already had been reached.
Details of what had unfolded were scarce. But Parnell confirmed he had enlisted the help of Pajcic & Pajcic, a Jacksonville law firm that had handled a landmark case against a Florida utility. The firm had sued Clay Electric Cooperative for the death of a 14-year-old boy who was hit by a truck while walking near an unlit streetlight. The case reached the state Supreme Court on appeal, which in 2003 ruled that the lawsuit, and others like it, could proceed.
If Lisa Wilkins had wanted to pursue a claim against a utility, she could not have found a better ally than Pajcic & Pajcic.
Word of a settlement rippled quietly through Tampa's courthouse. What people wanted to know was, did Barry Cohen have any role in the deal? The question did not presume anything inappropriate on Cohen's part. Helping a crime victim secure a beneficial settlement in a civil case is not typically considered unethical, legal experts say, as long as there is no deal requiring a favor in return.
The speculation about this settlement sprang, in part, from the fact that Cohen had political ties to one of the founders of Pajcic & Pajcic. Steve Pajcic was a former member of the Florida House and had run as the Democratic nominee for governor in 1986. Cohen, meanwhile, had long been a major supporter of the Democratic party. He and Pajcic both belonged to a small group of high-powered lawyers active in party circles.
As is common with settlements, details of any money Lisa Wilkins received were kept secret. Asked about his involvement in Wilkins' claim, Steve Pajcic declined comment. Cohen acknowledged he may have played a minor role in referring Wilkins' lawyer to Pajcic. As Cohen put it:
"The best that can be said is, I mentioned his name to Parnell, and Parnell may have called him."
Parnell said his recollection was vague. But he agreed Cohen may have told him of Pajcic's Clay Electric case, prompting him to look it up. Parnell said he would have found the Clay case, and Pajcic, anyway.
Whatever deal had been struck, Parnell would not talk about it. He said he could not confirm that Wilkins had reached a settlement with Tampa Electric. He could not even confirm, he said, that there had been a claim to settle.
Either way, Lisa Wilkins had her house.
She had finally gotten rid of her old king bed, the one where she used to sleep with all the kids before the accident. She associated the bed powerfully with Durontae. She remembered how he flung his arm over her before falling asleep. When she disposed of the bed, she worried that Durontae would not understand.
"It's not gonna show you don't love him," a friend told her. "He knows you love him."
Lisa continued to have conversations with her dead children. She could hear Bryant whispering to her it was time she forgave Jennifer Porter, even if she remained furious with her.
She asked Parnell to arrange a meeting with Porter. She did not know what she might be capable of, being in the same room with her. But she knew she had to try. Her rage had come to feel like a prison.
Looking in Porter's face, hearing her speak, might help her break free.
* * *
Jennifer Porter was shaking as she entered the room.
It was late March. A year had gone by since the hit-and-run, and now the two women were finally getting the chance to speak face to face in Tom Parnell's office. Lisa Wilkins, accompanied by the Rev. Michelle Patty, arrived first. Then Porter walked in, accompanied by Cohen.
A few minutes later, after everyone had been introduced, Wilkins asked the lawyers to leave the room. Rev. Patty was allowed to stay.
The minister led the three of them in a prayer, then the conversation began. At first it was awkward, but then some of the hesitation slipped away. Both women began to cry.
Seated a few feet away, Porter looked into Wilkins' face and told her how sorry she was. Wilkins said she didn't want to hear regrets. What she wanted was an explanation.
"Why did you leave my kids in the road like that?" she asked. "Why did you keep going?"
Porter said she didn't remember most of it.
"It happened so fast," she said.
Wilkins didn't know what that meant. What had happened so fast? Porter said that a body had flown into her windshield, and that it had been on her car for an instant, and then it was gone.
As Porter spoke, Wilkins listened closely, absorbing the words, weighing them. She had the sense that Porter wanted to tell her more, was right on the verge. But then Porter seemed to catch herself.
Why, Wilkins asked, had Porter not turned herself in that night? Why hadn't she gone back to the scene?
"Just tell me the truth," Wilkins said.
Porter said her family had talked her out of it. She reminded Wilkins that her car may not have been the first to hit the children, that another vehicle could have thrown them into her path. Repeatedly, she expressed her sorrow.
Before they parted, Wilkins told Porter she did not hate her. She told her she forgave her. The two women embraced.
Later, remembering the moment, Wilkins would say that she had held Porter like a child.
* * *
On a plane headed north, the lawyer and his client sat quietly together in first class.
Cohen was flying Jennifer Porter to Boston to consult with another psychiatrist. This time, though, Cohen was not seeking personal therapy for his client. Instead, he was trying to build his case.
The prosecution believed Porter had fled the accident by choice and that her family had conspired to cover it up. Cohen did not accept that theory. Still, he wanted to understand why his client had driven away and left four children in the road. From the start, he had been as mystified by Porter's actions as anyone else. Up until that night, she had been an upstanding young woman. So why had she committed such a serious transgression?
To get some answers, he was taking Porter to meet Bessel van der Kolk, a professor at Boston University School of Medicine. Dr. van der Kolk was one of the country's leading experts in the field of psychological trauma and post-traumatic stress. In the early 1990s, when the American Psychiatric Association needed help defining post-traumatic stress disorder for the fourth edition of its diagnostic bible - the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders - it had turned to van der Kolk.
For several hours, the doctor talked to Porter. He asked her to describe her recollections about the accident in great detail, pressing her about what had happened, what she experienced. During the examination, and two more sessions that followed, he administered psychological tests, read some of her writings, went over the statements her family had given.
Eventually, Cohen asked van der Kolk to share his conclusions on videotape - a tape the attorney wanted to be able to show a jury or a judge.
"I was clearly impressed and convinced," the doctor said, "that the moment that this accident happened she went through a dramatic change in her mental state - a change that I know very well from working with other acutely traumatized people, like people who have just been raped, or people who have been going through a natural disaster, or people on the battlefield."
Porter, he said, suffered from an acute stress reaction during and after the accident. "It was such a classical textbook case actually . . . of what happens to people during an acute traumatic event and what happens to the brain at that time."
He explained it to Cohen: The part of the brain that thinks, plans, understands and reacts - the prefrontal cortex - can become dysfunctional during extreme trauma, leaving the more primitive parts of the brain at work. People become disoriented. They barely know who they are, where they are.
In her meetings with van der Kolk, just as in her sessions with her personal psychiatrist, Porter was able to describe something hitting her car. Then she went into shock.
"And that moment, she shut down and went on automatic, and then she drove basically like a zombie for 18 minutes. Occasionally an intense feeling would come up in her and she would say, "Oh my God, Oh my God.' But there would be no thought. There would be no construction in her mind, brain, of knowing what had happened."
Essentially, she was on autopilot. "The first thing that sort of woke her up out of her stupor," van der Kolk said, "was the cracking of her windshield."
At home that evening, Porter's brain still was not completely functioning, he said. She began to realize she needed to report the accident, but she did as her parents told her. Although Jennifer was 28, she was psychologically young, van der Kolk said.
She was the quintessential good girl, unusually compliant, he said. Obedience to her parents was deeply ingrained. It would have been a strange time for her to say, "No, Daddy, I have to do what I need to do," van der Kolk said.
Not once during their sessions did Porter indicate that she left the scene because she wanted to hide, the doctor said. Her brain wasn't capable of thinking deviously, he said. She was unable to appreciate the consequences of stopping, or not stopping.
For Porter, leaving the scene was especially uncharacteristic.
"This woman is almost too good to be true. She is so nice, so considerate, so thoughtful, so pleasant, so accommodating," he said. "She impresses me as somebody who wouldn't know how to break a rule even if she was asked to do so."
Other people, he said, would be wrong to assume they would have reacted differently.
"To judge yourself, that you would have not lost your mind or your brain under these circumstances, I think would be a dangerous statement to make. You don't know how people will react until you're there."
* * *
She wrote the letter the day before the one-year anniversary of the accident. Her neat cursive filled a little more than a page.
Dear Ms. Wilkins,
Thank you so much for meeting with me. I have wanted to do that for so long. Your strength and forgiveness has touched my soul. My wish is that you find peace in your life and realize that I also share in your pain. I hope that sharing your feelings with me brought you some comfort as it did me.
I will tell you again that I wish I had the words that could ease the pain and loss that you and I and everyone close to us feels, but I don't. When it comes to understanding all of this, the only thing I am sure of, is that the reason tragic accidents happen cannot be understood. Only God fully understands and has the answers. I pray each day we may understand.
In my life I want to make children feel like they are the center of the world and instill in them a sense of confidence and self-esteem which will help carry them through life. Most of my life has been centered around teaching children. In them I help to foster a love and appreciation for the arts and the art of dance. I loved to teach in the public school system because I was able to teach dance to children that may not have had an opportunity to learn about dance, if it were not through their school.
If ever Aquina would enjoy participating in dance outside of school, I would consider it an honor to be able to contribute something meaningful to her life.
Everyday and especially during the memorial I will keep you and your family in my prayers and pray for Bryant and Durontae to have the castle of their dreams next to God; the King of Kings.
With Warmest Sincerity,
* * *
The letter did not reach Lisa Wilkins.
It was delivered to her lawyer, Tom Parnell. He read it over, and decided it was a bad idea to give it to Lisa, at least for now.
Lisa was struggling. Since she'd met with Porter, something had nagged at her. When she replayed the conversation in her head, Porter's answers seemed vague and defensive. As far as she could tell, Porter had not given her any real account for why she'd driven away that night.
All that had happened, Lisa began to feel, was that Porter had been given another chance to do the right thing, and had avoided it yet again.
* * *
Barry Cohen had spent weeks perfecting his arguments. Now, he would do his best to persuade prosecutors that Porter did not belong in prison.
He walked into the State Attorney's Office just before 9 a.m. on May 6 with his two top criminal attorneys and his chief investigator. He would deliver his final pitch in hopes of securing a plea deal for Porter. He had prepared a PowerPoint presentation, maps and charts. But he left them at his office, deciding to rely on his own words.
For three hours, Cohen laid out his case for why his client did not belong behind bars. She was a first-time offender. She was deeply remorseful.
Cohen told Ober about the medical opinions he had gathered. He offered to fly the experts to Tampa so they could explain to Ober that Porter had not left the scene willfully. He also offered to let Ober meet Porter, so he could see for himself that she did not belong in prison. She would speak to him without immunity, Cohen said.
As Ober would recall, he asked Cohen whether he would allow a psychiatrist of the state's choosing to examine Porter. Ober says Cohen declined the offer. Cohen says Ober never made it.
All it would take to resolve the case, Cohen told Ober that day, was an offer that did not include prison time. Short of that, he was prepared to go to trial.
* * *
The prosecutors wanted to know where Lisa Wilkins stood. So they invited her in for another conversation.
Over the past year, Lisa had consistently expressed a belief Porter should go to prison. But this time, when she and Tom Parnell showed up in Seace's office, something seemed to have changed. Lisa seemed to be hedging. She said she wouldn't ask that Porter receive probation. But she also wouldn't stand in the way of any plea deals that made probation possible.
"Y'all do your job," she told the prosecutors.
To Seace, Lisa's change of tune raised an obvious question. She asked it point-blank:
Had a civil settlement influenced Lisa not to ask for prison time?
If Lisa had somehow been moved to soften her position, Seace wanted to know the particulars, especially if Wilkins took the stand at trial.
Answering for his client, Parnell said any settlement details were confidential. But he guaranteed Seace that there had been no deal to buy Lisa's silence.
* * *
For three weeks, Cohen waited.
Finally he called the State Attorney's Office. He had not spoken with Ober since he made his pitch to keep Porter out of prison. The case was scheduled for another status conference in a few days. He assumed nothing significant would happen at the hearing, but wanted to make sure.
Ober wasn't available. His chief assistant, Karen Stanley, picked up the phone. She told Cohen she had some news. The state had made a decision on a plea offer.
"What is it?" Cohen asked.
Three years in prison, plus probation, Stanley told him. It would be announced in court at the hearing.
"Okay," Cohen said flatly. "Thank you."
So much for the soft road. In a conversation that lasted less than a minute, all of Cohen's attempts to resolve the case without prison time had been tossed aside. The apology to Wilkins, the dinner with the ministers, his offer to let prosecutors talk to his medical experts, his offer to let them speak even to his client - none of it had worked.
To Cohen, three years was unacceptable. They were headed to trial.
In court the next week, when the collapse of the plea negotiations was made public, Seace walked over to Cohen. Normally, she barely acknowledged his presence. Today she sought him out.
"Good morning," she said. "How are you?"
She knew very well how he was. She was smiling.
The final installment: A marathon day - and night - in court.
About the story
In today's installment, the sections describing Jennifer Porter's sessions with her personal psychiatrist are based on the doctor's court testimony. The sections on Lisa Wilkins are based on Times interviews with Wilkins and her lawyer, Tom Parnell. The sections on Kim Seace and Mark Ober are based on interviews with both of them, as well as court transcripts. The details on Barry Cohen's defense strategy are from Times interviews with Cohen and others in his firm, as well as interviews with Porter and a videotaped statement by Dr. Bessel van der Kolk. The scene describing the meeting between Porter and Wilkins is based on interviews with Wilkins, as well as testimony from both Wilkins and the Rev. Michelle Patty. The defense provided the Times with a copy of Porter's letter to Wilkins.