Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Jennifer Martin to walk free Wednesday after state clemency board cuts sentence in half

Jennifer Martin got a call from the director of clemency in Tallahassee on Tuesday.

Stephen Hebert said to her, "Has anyone told you what happened?"

"No," she said.

And then he told her: "You've received a full commutation of your sentence. You're free and clear tomorrow. No probation. The board really wants you to succeed."

In a rare move, Gov. Charlie Crist, the former attorney general known as "Chain Gang Charlie," commuted Martin's 16-year sentence. Sometime today, Martin, now 30, will walk out of Hillsborough Correctional Institution, free for the first time in eight years. It is only the second time since becoming governor that Crist has commuted a sentence.

"God has done exceedingly more than I could have hoped for," Martin said Tuesday. "I am so thankful."

Martin was convicted of manslaughter by culpable negligence after she was speeding on Interstate 4 near Ybor City in April 1998 and lost control of the car. One of Martin's passengers, Josh Nicola, 23, was killed. Another, Scott Schutt, 23, was severely injured. Martin, who was 18 at the time of the crash, had no alcohol in her system.

In April, Alex Sink, Florida's chief financial officer, read an article in the St. Petersburg Times about Martin's case and requested the clemency hearing.

At that hearing in Tallahassee on Thursday, Martin's prosecutor, Paul Duval Johnson, said that Martin was not drinking, but that her two passengers were "inebriated" and "chose not to wear their seat belts."

Out of sympathy for the victims and their families, he said, he had vigorously prosecuted the case. But, he said, he believed the sentence was "too harsh," and he asked the clemency board to show mercy for Martin.

Nicola's mother did not urge the board to vote one way or the other. But she did write that while Martin "chose to risk her own life ... she had no right to risk the lives of others."

After the commutation was announced Tuesday, Alex Sink said that "despite the tragedy for the victims and their families," the prosecutor's request for mercy was "what was most important" in convincing the clemency board to release Martin eight years into her sentence.

Sink said the length of the original sentence also influenced the decision. Sink called it "excessive."

To win release, three of the four board members — which include Crist, Sink, Agriculture Commissioner Charles Bronson and State Attorney General Bill McCollum — had to vote to release Martin. And, one of those three had to be Crist. As it turned out, the vote was unanimous.

"Commutations are very, very rare, and we take them very seriously but something had gone awry here," Sink said. "That's why we have a clemency board — to right such wrongs."

"There are many victims here," said Sink, "among them, Martin's 9-year-old son who has had to grow up without his mother."

When Martin's parents pick her up at the prison today, Johnson, her prosecutor, plans to be waiting outside the razor wire.

"I want her to know how happy I am for her," he said.


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