Sunday, Nov 23, 2014

Family forgives drunken driver in fatal Pinellas crash

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CLEARWATER — Families that lose a loved one to a drunk driver often want retribution, usually in the form of a prison sentence.

That wasn’t the stance taken Friday by the relatives of Leigh Ann and Robert Hallett, a New Port Richey couple in their 50s who were killed on Aug. 5, 2009, when their car was struck at a Palm Harbor intersection by another traveling 83 mph.

The driver of the speeding car, Michelle Jensen, then a 25-year-old Steak ’n Shake waitress, had blood-alcohol readings of 0.119 and 0.092, above the 0.08 level at which a driver is presumed drunk. She was charged with two counts of driving-under-the-influence manslaughter and faced a minimum mandatory sentence of four years in prison.

Instead, she was sentenced to 20 years of probation after her attorney, Kevin Hayslett, and the Pinellas-Pasco State Attorney’s Office worked out a deal.

Jensen avoided prison because the two manslaughter charges were reduced to vehicular homicide and drunken driving charges.

Prosecutors agreed to probation in large part because the Hallett family didn’t want Jensen incarcerated, Assistant State Attorney Dana DiSano said.

DiSano read a letter from Peter Kourlas, the couple’s son-in-law, in court.

“Throughout this ordeal our family has courageously struggled with forgiveness,” Kourlas wrote.

“Our family could have pressed for a long prison sentence for the defendant,” he wrote. “Therefore we pray that our compassion will not harm others and by that I mean, lacking a deterrent, others will not die due to our attempt to forgive.”

Jensen also wrote a letter and tried to read it to Joni Haddad, Leigh Ann’s sister, and to Laurie Farah, Robert’s sister, who came to court proceedings from out of state to testify about the Halletts and how much they were missed.

But Jensen, now a college student in South Dakota, broke down while trying to read her letter. Hayslett finished some of her thoughts.

“She ... wanted to let you know she’s not going to let you all down,” Hayslett said.

Jensen was seriously injured in the wreck. She was in a nursing home for a year, and has limited use of her left arm. Because of internal injuries, she has a permanent port in her chest where she receives liquid infusions twice a week for two hours to maintain her weight.

Jensen’s letter says she knows the family had input regarding the sentence, and about their hopes that their mercy and grace are not in vain.

“Thank you for giving me a chance,” the letter states. “You won’t be disappointed.”

While she is on probation, Jensen can neither drink nor drive.

sthompson@tampatrib.com

(727) 215-6504.

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