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Ex-Public Defender Now Crusades Against Early Release of Convicts

ASSOCIATED PRESS

Kathleen Finnegan, a former public defender who later became a prosecutor, gave up her legal career to lead a crusade against the early release of prison inmates.

“I was forced into it at the point of a gun,” she says.

Finnegan still has long, thin bullet scars on her arms from her abduction and robbery in a Punta Gorda field, about 75 miles south of Tampa, six years ago when a career criminal on early release from prison fired on her and a fellow prosecutor, killing him.

And her voice still quivers when she recounts the horror of being covered in blood as she ran into the night for help, hiding in ditches along the way, fearing the killer was closing in.

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“I always felt I survived for a reason,” says Finnegan, who credits slain prosecutor Norman Langston with taking two bullets in the head for her after the gunman began shooting at them in their car.

“He covered me, he leaned over me--he actually made a decision at some point to save my life. That can’t be in vain.

“I can’t ever pay back Norm for saving my life, but maybe if we can stop it from happening to someone else, then it may somehow justify his death.”

The 34-year-old Port Charlotte woman last year volunteered to run STOP--Stop Turning Out Prisoners--a grass-roots movement devoted to fixing the “revolving door of injustice.”

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Both Finnegan and Langston were assistant state attorneys. They were celebrating with other prosecutors at a Howard Johnson’s motel bar. Finnegan had just presented her first murder case to a grand jury.

“It was probably the best day of my career--I was on top of the world--everything was going really well,” she recalls.

When Finnegan and Langston walked out of the bar together about 10 p.m. they were confronted by released convict Samuel Pettit in the parking lot.

“We tried to talk and tried to reason with him--we said you can have our stuff, here. It’s amazing, we had law enforcement training, but when he sticks that gun in your side, it’s real hard not to do what he says to do,” she says.

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Langston was forced to drive his Ford Probe, with Finnegan and Pettit next to him in the front seat. In a remote field, Pettit robbed them of jewelry and cash, and then opened fire.

After the shooting stopped, Finnegan didn’t move.

“It was dark and all I could do was listen,” she says. “He kept trying to fire the gun and it misfired. He kept clicking it faster. It turned out he was out of bullets. I played dead, absolutely dead.”

The gunman left on foot and after a while Finnegan ran for help.

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“I started out running,” she says. “It turned out I was actually chasing the guy. I didn’t know it at the time. At first I tried to flag down cars but nobody stopped.”

She finally called police from a tavern about a mile away.

Barely a day later in Naples, 60 miles south of Punta Gorda, two patrolling officers found Pettit asleep in bushes near a beach. He was armed with a .22-caliber revolver.

Langston died from head wounds two days after the shooting.

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Florida inmates serve only about 40% of their sentences because of prison overcrowding. More than half of those released early commit crimes and are put back behind bars again, according to the state Department of Corrections.

Frustrated at years of inaction by lawmakers on the issue, STOP is leading a drive to force the state to stop releasing prisoners early.

More than 100,000 Floridians have already signed a petition for a November ballot initiative that would amend the state Constitution to require all prisoners to serve at least 85% of their sentence. STOP must have 430,000 validated signatures by August to get the issue on the ballot.

At county fairs, shopping malls and grocery stores across the state, Finnegan tells her story to anyone who will listen.

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“I like to call Kathleen our poster child,” says Manatee County Sheriff Charlie Wells, STOP’s founder. “Every movement has to have somebody who has been there, suffered through it and is the human face of the tragedy.”

It was Wells who first approached Finnegan about speaking at STOP’s organizational meeting three years ago. She balked.

At the time, Finnegan wallowed in anger and depression over her ordeal. She had quit the prosecutor’s office because it was “getting too personal.” And private practice left her unfulfilled.

She couldn’t stop replaying that awful night in her mind.

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And couldn’t forget the fact that the suspect, Samuel Pettit, had 17 prior convictions, served two years of a 3 1/2-year sentence for car theft and resisting arrest, and was out of prison two months before the abduction.

After finally seeing Pettit sentenced to Death Row, where he still is, dredging up the tragedy again was not something she wanted to do.

But Wells was persistent about getting Finnegan to tell her story. Finally, she agreed.

“I cried through the whole thing,” she says, recalling her first speech. “But afterwards, so many people came up who were crying too and said, ‘I know how you feel, I’ve been through it too.’

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“Suddenly it went from me and my own problem to everyone’s problem. I saw how many other people were victims of early releases. I’m just one of thousands.”

Finnegan quit the prosecutor’s office shortly after the shooting and went into private practice. She became executive director of STOP in January, 1992, and closed her private practice in December, 1992. She has been running STOP full time ever since.

She has a hearty distaste for politics. Now she helps run her family’s marina and mobile home park in Charlotte County, besides her role in STOP. She says she doesn’t know if she will ever return to law.

Some of the latest early prison releases gone bad have only served to fan the flames of the STOP movement.

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One of the two men who admitted to February’s murder of a Florida State University student and the rape of his sister had 14 arrests on his record and was last freed from prison after serving only a year of a five-year sentence for grand theft.

And last month in Lakeland, an angry Polk County Sheriff Lawrence Crow called on the state to apologize to the family of 11-year-old Kimberly Ann Waters, who was snatched from her bedroom, raped, strangled and dumped in a garbage bin. The man accused in the attack had a rap sheet six feet long and was released from prison after serving only five years of a 15-year burglary and grand theft sentence.

When the mother of a 17-year-old Hollywood girl strangled by a convict released early offered her help to STOP, Finnegan gave her the same advice she gives all survivors.

“Bring pictures of your daughter and show them to your legislators,” she said. “Let them see what this is costing us by not having enough prisons.”

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The intended effect of the STOP amendment is to force the Legislature to pay for the additional prison beds needed to protect Florida’s citizens.

Corrections officials say it would cost $2.3 billion over the next five years to add 47,000 prison beds to the existing 55,000 to reach the level where inmates serve at least 85% of their time. STOP maintains it is up to lawmakers to find a way to pay for it.

“This is what infuriates us,” Finnegan says. “It’s still happening while up in Tallahassee they’re arguing and they’re playing politics. Don’t they realize there are lives at stake?”

Pettit has repeatedly said he wants to die in Florida’s electric chair and offered no mitigating circumstances at his sentencing.

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In an interview a year after the shooting, Pettit said: “I think I should have done better because she lived. . . . I would’ve killed her too.”


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