Tuesday, May 03, 2005

A YOUNG SINGLE WOMAN, 18 years old, agrees to give a ride home to two young men, both married, after a local basketball tournament. The woman, whose name is Jennifer Martin, drives too fast on the interstate, and there is a crash. One of the men is killed; the other one seriously injured. The young woman is convicted of manslaughter and sentenced to 16 years in prison.

The night this happened was the first night in two years that Martin had gone out anywhere. That was because two years ago, her 2-month-old baby had been killed when the father, who wanted nothing to do with his child, asked to visit with her for an evening and during that visit, hit her on the head repeatedly, causing a 4-inch skull fracture. It took Martin the next two years to feel emotionally capable of doing anything.

Martin was 16 when this happened. Her baby's father was 18.

When Jennifer Martin was 8 years old, a family member began sexually abusing her. The abuse continued for three years. The man who molested her was never arrested, and her family kept it a secret.

Should Martin have been sentenced to prison at all, much less 16 years in prison? Remember, she was speeding, but she was not drunk. Her passengers chose to get in her car, and they did not know each other; the men were hitching a ride. They did not put on their seatbelts. Maybe they asked her to slow down; more likely they didn't. But this is clearly not a case of deliberate murder, and it may not even be reckless disregard for human life. It was an accident, caused by bad decisions on the part of the driver and the passengers.

The father of Martin's baby, who deliberately beat his child to death, was convicted of aggravated manslaughter and was sentenced to 15 years in prison -- 1 year less than Martin will have to serve for her car crash.

Even the prosecutor felt very uneasy about the case.

He wondered whether Martin really deserved prison. He already knew about how her baby was beaten to death. And just before the sentencing, he learned that Martin had been sexually abused as a child. The revelation added to his doubts.

Florida's judges must have a legal reason to depart from the state-mandated sentencing guidelines, which in this case was about 12 to 20 years. One such exception can be the victims or their families asking for a more lenient sentence.

Johnson was in an odd position. Prosecutors seldom try to persuade a victim's families to show mercy. He felt he had to try. In the end, he failed.

One after another during the sentencing hearing, the victims' relatives rose to implore the judge to make Martin serve the maximum.

A relative described how Tyler, Nicola's son, pleaded with them to build a rocket ship so he could visit his father in heaven.

Shane Nicola described how her brother's hand had felt like concrete as he lay in the coffin. His face misshapen by the impact. A baseball cap covered his battered skull. She said she could not forgive.

Scott Schutt's sister was too emotional to read her statement.

"Josh was such a charismatic person," she had written. "It's unfair Jennifer Martin made the choice to end his life."

Johnson stood silent. Speaking against the victims' families wishes would have been inappropriate for a prosecutor. But he was not going to pile on.

Hyman, Martin's attorney, argued that this was not an armed robbery or some other intentionally violent act. Martin did not set out to hurt anyone, he said.

"This is a woman who really has never caught a break," Hyman told the judge.

Judge Padgett sentenced Martin to 16 years in prison. He would say later that he did not believe he had legal grounds to vary from sentencing guidelines.

"The commodity we are providing is retribution," Padgett told the St. Petersburg Times. "Retribution for society or for the victims that remain. We shouldn't pretend it is anything less or anything more."

Hyman called the case the saddest of his 10-year legal career. At some point, he said, victims' rights simply become victims' revenge.

"We live in a society in which we have decided certain people will be sacrificed," Hyman said. "Jennifer Martin is one of those people."

What do you think? The article is here.

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