St. Petersburg Times

Have questions on the Tampa hit and run?

Times staff writers Chris Goffard and Saundra Amrhein will answer readers' questions about the accident that killed two brothers and injured two other siblings.

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Latest questions and answers: (updated May 4)

Question: I am saddened by the death of two children, but why were the children out at night, walking on a dark street, and where were the parents? Do they not share some culpability in this? Were they crossing at an marked intersection? Did they have light colored clothing on?

Amrhein: The mother was at home, just yards away from the park, at the time of the wreck. The mother, Lisa Wilkins, had walked the children to the park about an hour before. She said she never let them play outside the house in order to protect them, but Bryant insisted this time to let the kids go to the park for a cook-out. Lisa, who is a single mom, walked the children to the park, told them to stay there until she came back for them, and then returned home to start dinner. But for some reason, Bryant and the children decided to head back early. As Lisa left her house to go back for them, neighbors ran to tell her about the accident, and she raced to her children, who were all lying in the street. Many people have asked about her letting the children walk alone outside. The neighborhood, full of working-class and poor families without cars, has a lot of children riding bicycles and walking to the park. Also, many of the street lights and area lights around the crosswalk were not working when the children were struck just after sunset.

Question: Did the police wait almost 30 days before they arrested her so that she could clean out her system of drugs? Why were others in recent hit and run accidents arrested almost immediately?

Amrhein: Actually, other people in hit-and-run wrecks are not arrested almost immediately. In fact, Jennifer Porter was arrested rather quickly if you consider a number of recent high-profile cases, which we outlined in a recent story. Many times, suspects are not arrested for three, four, sometimes six months after a traffic wreck because investigators need to recreate the wreck and wait for laboratory results of blood tests, DNA samples, crash pieces left at the scene and autopsy results that can match up damage to the body and damage to the car. In answer to the first part of that question, it would not take 30 days for Jennifer Porter to rid her system of alcohol. Also, a co-worker left her at the school just moments before the crash, which provides a witness to vouch for whether or not she appeared drunk or high.

Question: How can Sheriff Cal Henderson say publicly there is "no" evidence? She is placed at the scene with a damaged car! Accusations of presence other vehicles should not nullify the evidence.

Question: How can a person hit people and leave go home, sleep, wake up go to work like nothing happened? Oh, I forgot she washed her car. And that's not vehicular homicide? Explain to me please?

Amrhein (answering both questions): Washing the car would not increase the charge to vehicular homicide. That would be tampering with evidence, if officials could prove it. To obtain a charge of vehicular homicide, as our stories have repeatedly pointed out, investigators have to prove more than just speeding. They said they believe Jennifer Porter was traveling 6 to 10 mph over the speed limit, but that alone is not enough for vehicular homicide. Authorities would also need to prove that she either was drinking and driving or that she was driving recklessly. For instance the motorcyclist accused of striking and killing a jogger recently on Bayshore Boulevard was charged with vehicular homicide because investigators said he not only was speeding excessively, but he also was recklessly weaving in and out of traffic. There is no proof that Jennifer Porter was drunk -- seeing that she just left a co-worker at her school three minutes before. Nor is there proof that she was driving recklessly. She was driving 6 to 10 mph over the speed limit, officials say. And again, that's not enough for vehicular homicide.

Question: It seems like hit and runs are becoming more frequent. As may or may not be in this case... I believe drivers feel like this, I'm driving under the influence and If I was to stop now while I'm intoxicated I'll get more of a sentence than if I turn myself in later (or have the police try to find me). What is your take?

Question: Is it true if a driver leaves the scene of an accident involving death the charge is the lesser punishment than a charge of the severe case of vehicular homicide?

Amrhein (answering both questions): As it now stands, drunken drivers can avoid harsher penalties by leaving a scene and saving themselves from a DUI manslaughter charge. DUI manslaughter comes with the same 15-year maximum sentence as fleeing the scene of a fatal crash. But after applying the complicated points system outlined by the Florida Criminal Punishment Code, a first-time offender charged with one count of DUI manslaughter will almost always receive a lengthy prison sentence, usually about 11 to 14 years.

If two victims are killed, the sentence can range upwards of 25 years. Former prosecutor Paul D. Johnson said that drunken drivers should not think they will get off easy if they flee. He agreed that the law lays out a lesser minimum sentence for fleeing the scene of a fatal crash, compared to a DUI manslaughter charge. Judges, however, have some latitude.

Question: How fast was the driver going? Did the kids run out in front of the car? Did the driver even have a chance to stop before hitting the kids?

Amrhein: Investigators said Jennifer Porter was driving 6 to 10 mph over the speed limit, which is 30 mph. Witnesses said they thought they kids were walking across the street in a poorly lit area. The boyfriend of Porter's sister said she called home hysterical and said that something hit her windshield with a "Bam!" It's not clear if Porter had time to stop or if she was shocked that she hit something.

Question: Am I correct in assuming that as she's not been charged with a vehicular manslaughter, the police think she was not in fault with the actual accident, and if she'd have stopped after the accident she would likely have escaped any charge?

Amrhein: Yes, Sheriff Cal Henderson said that if she had stopped, she might not have been charged with anything because her speeding alone -- going 6 to 10 mph over the 30 mph speed limit -- is not enough to charge her with vehicular homicide. Plus, Henderson said, there were other circumstances that could be at fault in the wreck, including bad lighting and the children walking in the middle of the road.

Question: I'm working on a study of recent possible increase in hit-and-run accidents, which may be related to the size of the car involved, and the relatively greater sensory isolation of the drivers from the road and the driving process itself. Can you tell me what model of vehicle was involved in this case?

Amrhein: The car involved was a 2000 Toyota Echo

Question: Could it be that Jennifer Porter's lawyer, Barry Cohen, worked out a deal in advance with prosecutors to lessen the charge before Ms. Porter finally surrendered today? Were prosecutors influenced by this legal show of strength over the past couple weeks?

Amrhein: Investigators and even Lisa Wilkins' lawyer said that authorities were not influenced in any way by Cohen's presence. They could only work with the evidence that they had, officials said. And without proof of Porter driving under the influence or driving recklessly, they could not have charged her with vehicular homicide.

Question: Do you think there will be backlash against DA Mark Ober for his delay in bringing charges against Jennifer Porter?

Amrhein: Hard to say. The Sheriff's Office has met with many black ministers to explain that a "delay" in charges is normal in traffic wrecks, as many of our past stories have shown. In some cases, investigators took far longer, sometimes months, before charging a suspect with DUI manslaughter. Whether or not the public accepts that response from authorities remains to be seen. Also, Lisa Wilkins, the mother of the children, said she was happy with the job done by authorities. That could also influence the public's reaction.

Question: When she admitted leaving the scene couple weeks ago, why wasn't her license suspended then?

Goffard: She had not yet been charged with any crime.

Question: Jennifer Porter is charged with leaving the scene of an accident with death. Why not charge her with hit & run? Where is the obstruction of justice charge because she destroyed evidence? Is alcohol or illegal drugs involved? Is that why she ran?

Goffard: To charge Jennifer Porter with vehicular homicide, it would be necessary to show she was driving recklessly and caused the deaths. Speeding is not enough to prove recklessness. There is no proof she destroyed evidence. There is no evidence she was driving drunk or on drugs.

Question: What was she doing in that part of town?

Goffard: She teaches at an elementary school down the block.

Question: How could Porter have the audacity to turn herself in at her leisure? Is she so privileged to be able to decide when she's ready to be arrested for a crime she clearly admitted to being involved in?

Goffard: Defendants are often allowed to turn themselves in.

Question: Why is she only charged with a single count of leaving the scene of an accident with death when she killed two and injured two more? Why is her bail only set at $7,500?

Goffard: The statue allows for only one count, because it was one accident she's charged with leaving, regardless of the number of victims. Bails are often set by statute.

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