15 years for DUI slaying

The 75-year-old Wal-Mart greeter was returning home from work the night Nicole Hall struck and killed her.

Published May 30, 2007

TAMPA - Before heading to prison, Nicole Harris Hall came clean Tuesday with a catalog of her bad decisions.

Falling in love with abusive men. Stealing money from her employer to buy her husband fancy shoes. Fleeing house arrest to follow a boyfriend to Georgia. Giving deputies a false name after she ran a stop sign last year.

"Bad decision," said her attorney.

"Real bad," said a judge.

But most troubling to Circuit Judge Ronald Ficarrotta was the choice Hall, 33, made before running that stop sign on June 18, 2006. That night, she drove her 2002 Ford Taurus after drinking enough alcohol to register a blood alcohol content of 0.12.

At Valrico and Wheeler roads in Dover, Hall crashed into a 75-year-old Wal-Mart greeter driving home from work. Margaret L. Caouette died at the scene.

"That was a lot more than a bad decision," Ficarrotta said. "That was a very serious crime that you must be punished for."

To the delight of Caouette's family and the despair of Hall's, the judge accepted Hall's guilty plea to DUI manslaughter and sentenced the curly haired woman to 15 years in prison.

Hall arrived in court without a plea offer from prosecutors. She hoped the judge would hear about her hardships and take pity; instead, she got the stiffest sentence possible for the felony. Ficarrotta sentenced her to time served for giving a false identity - her sister's - to law enforcement.

Hall's only solace was the chance to finally speak to the people who loved the woman she killed.

Handcuffed to her hospital bed, she had cried for them. In jail, she asked if she could reach out to them. She was told she must wait until the criminal justice process finished its course.

She knew her words wouldn't bring back Caouette, a mother and grandmother who rescued animals and worked at Wal-Mart to make friends and stay busy.

"I regret every choice and action I made that night," she said. "I am truly sorry."

Her voice had a flat affect. Her attorney attributed it to the medications Hall is on for major depression and post-traumatic stress disorder. She still hallucinates about tires and brakes, a mental health expert said.

Deputies were looking for Hall before the crash happened. She had been a fugitive from Alachua County since 2004, violating her probation on forgery charges.

Just before 11 p.m. June 18, Father's Day, deputies went to the Valrico home of Hall's boyfriend after he accused her of punching him and breaking a window. Defense attorney Lisa McLean said the boyfriend broke Hall's tooth and kicked her after she told him she might be pregnant.

When deputies arrived, Hall was gone.

One deputy saw the Taurus as it ran a first stop sign. The deputy followed the car but lost sight of it briefly because of its high speed, said Assistant State Attorney Lucia Iler. Then the deputy saw a puff of smoke.

Caouette, driving the 1992 Mercury Cougar her husband had chosen for her before he died, had stopped at the four-way intersection before starting to cross Wheeler. Hall slammed into her driver's side.

Bonnie Godshall, Caouette's only child, said her mother still had much life to live.

"I used to tease her that she had a spring on her butt because she never could sit still," Godshall said.

Godshall and her daughter, 23-year-old Danielle, now live in Caouette's home and care for her six dogs and cats. They will mark the one-year anniversary of her death next month by traveling to Boston for a Red Sox game.

Caouette, a Massachusetts native, and her husband shared many dates at Fenway Park, Danielle Godshall said. The place reminds the mother-daughter pair of happier times.

Colleen Jenkins can be reached at 813 226-3337 or cjenkins@sptimes.com.