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    Mercy runs out for drunken driver

    A mother who once urged leniency for the driver who killed her son helps send the woman away after probation violations.

    By WILLIAM R. LEVESQUE

    © St. Petersburg Times, published December 20, 2000


    LARGO -- A mother's mercy had finally run its course.

    This time, the pleas and the tears couldn't change Karen McCoach's mind. This time, the woman who drove drunk, killing McCoach's 32-year-old son in a traffic crash, had to go to prison.

    A year ago, McCoach felt sorry for waitress Tammy L. Marshall, 28, of St. Petersburg and convinced a judge to send her to jail for just a year rather than the maximum 16 years in prison that she faced.

    "I gave her a second chance," McCoach said. "And she blew it."

    On Tuesday, a Pinellas-Pasco circuit judge sentenced Marshall to nine years in prison followed by six years' probation for probation violations committed just months after her release from the Pinellas County Jail early this year.

    He also ordered drug treatment and counseling.

    Last summer, Downey agreed to the year in jail followed by 15 years' probation after McCoach convinced him not to send Marshall to prison.

    Marshall, who has no prior criminal record, had pleaded guilty to DUI-manslaughter for the St. Petersburg crash in October 1998 that killed McCoach's son, Kelly Eric Kneedler.

    The judge said he wouldn't give Marshall yet another break.

    "I'm upset and I know you're upset you didn't take advantage of it," Downey told her. "You made a silly mistake."

    Downey had originally revoked her driver's license for life and ordered her to refrain from drinking any alcohol while on probation.

    On July 6, prosecutors Pat Siracusa and Rob Dittmer said, Marshall drove to a Clearwater neighborhood after drinking at about 4:45 a.m. The prosecutors say she was searching for crack cocaine.

    A Clearwater police officer stopped her, and Marshall later acknowledged to her probation officer and others that she had been drinking and driving.

    Downey, after Marshall herself acknowledged the probation violations in testimony, found her guilty of the probation violations just minutes before he sentenced her.

    McCoach, 54, thought a year ago that, despite her loss, little could be served by forcing Marshall to serve a long prison sentence.

    At the time, she figured a stringent probation sentence would be more useful to society and to Marshall herself. McCoach's own family disagreed with her.

    But on Tuesday, McCoach, who lives in St. Petersburg, asked Downey for a prison sentence.

    "She obviously didn't take her second chance seriously enough to go straight," McCoach said.

    Marshall and her attorney, Larry Sandefer, said she had suffered a lifetime of abuse, first by her stepfather and then by her ex-husband. Sandefer said she suffers from mental illness and drug addiction.

    Her emotional instability was compounded by stress over a dispute with her ex-husband, who Sandefer said fled to Croatia with the couple's 5-year-old son, whom she hasn't seen in three years.

    McCoach and Marshall had kept in touch over the past year, before and after Marshall's arrest on the probation violations.

    In fact, Marshall and McCoach met at a Chili's restaurant the day after she was stopped in Clearwater, before a judge ordered her jailed.

    Marshall tearfully broke the news about her probation violations during the meeting.

    In previous conversations, Marshall said she always gave McCoach the impression all was fine in her life, though things weren't going well at all. Marshall said she didn't want to make a mother upset at her decision to give her leniency.

    "I didn't want to make her feel like she made a bad choice," Marshall told the judge. "I didn't want her to think her son's life was lost in vain. I wanted her to be proud of me."

    McCoach doesn't regret her decision for mercy, even if Marshall didn't redeem the faith McCoach put in her.

    "I still think I did the right thing," she said. "I don't regret it."

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