Woman convicted in fatal DUI seeks a new sentence — (The St Augustine Record)

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The St Augustine Record

RICHARD PRIOR, Staff Writer

 Published Saturday, February 12, 2005

 A woman serving 23 years in prison for causing a 1999 wreck that killed her 4-year-old daughter was back in St. Johns County Circuit Court on Friday, contending that her lawyer hadn’t done enough to get her a more lenient sentence.

Suzanne Conroy Squires, 43, pleaded guilty on July 10, 2000, to one count of DUI manslaughter and three counts of DUI resulting in serious bodily injury. Two of the injured were Squires’ other children, Kristin and Casey.

The third was Renea M. Povlak of Jacksonville who was injured when Squires collided with her, going south in the northbound lane of U.S. 1 with a blood alcohol level of 0.21, according to testimony presented at her sentencing.

Povlak was left with a foot and leg injury that doctors said would probably give her a permanent limp.

The evidentiary hearing Friday was to determine if enough persuasive evidence was presented to allow the sentencing judge, Robert K. Mathis, to go below the statutory range.

The hearing was held before Circuit Judge J. Michael Traynor.

Four years ago, Squires insisted to her attorney, Steven Alexander, that she wanted to put her fate in Mathis’s hands.

There was “no way,” Alexander said Friday, that there was going to be a trial because the prosecutor, Wendy Berger, intended to call Squires’ surviving children to testify.

“She said, ‘I don’t want to put my kids through this,’ ” Alexander testified. “Basically, my instructions always were to work out the best deal I could get. Those were my marching orders.”

Squires had already rejected Berger’s plea offer that called for 20 years in prison followed by 10 years probation, Alexander said. She would not be eligible for probation for 17 years.

“She didn’t want to stay in prison so long that her kids would be adults when she got out,” Alexander testified.

In sentencing Squires, Mathis said he could find “no valid, lawful reason to depart from guidelines in this case.”

At least partially influencing his decision was that Squires didn’t show enough remorse, Mathis said.

Flem Whited of Daytona Beach represented Squires during Friday’s evidentiary hearing, presenting witnesses who said Alexander had a “laissez-faire” attitude about the case, that his medical experts could have provided mitigating evidence and that he gave his client precisely the wrong recommendation by suggesting Squires rein in her emotions.

“Mr. Alexander told me I needed to be strong don’t break down,” Squires testified. “If I broke down, Judge Mathis would think I was scared to go to prison.”

Alexander said he only wanted Squires to control her sobbing long enough for Mathis to understand her.

“She would cry so hard and so profusely when I talked to her that I couldn’t understand her,” Alexander said. “I wanted Judge Mathis to be able to understand her.

“I thought she was very frank, open and honest about how sorry she was. She said, ‘This is a weight I’m going to have to bear for the rest of my life, killing my own child.’ ”

Assistant State Attorney Maureen Sullivan Christine maintained a running objection to Whited’s presentation, saying the evidentiary hearing was only supposed to consider if Squires’ plea was “knowingly, voluntarily and intelligently made.”

Christine insisted there was no testimony to suggest Squires was mentally incapable of making an informed plea. She also referred to several instances in the sentencing transcript in which Squires and her witnesses told Mathis how upset and depressed she was.

The statutory sentencing range for judges comes from a score sheet that contains “victim injury points.” A severe injury rating carries 40 points, moderate injury 18 points and a slight injury four points.

Each point contributes to the amount of time a defendant spends in prison.

Berger rated the injuries to Povlak and Squires’ two children as “severe,” adding to the possible sentence.

“There was no mandatory minimum sentence,” Whited said. “The judge could have given her straight probation if he found the statutory mitigator applied. But he didn’t.”

Alexander asked Mathis to sentence his client to five years in prison, followed by in-patient treatment at a special facility in Atlanta. That was to be followed by a long probationary period, he said.

Five years was what he hoped for, Alexander said. A range of 10 to 15 years was more realistic.

Squires didn’t get those more lenient terms, Whited said, because Alexander didn’t take full advantage of mitigating evidence — her bipolar condition; being placed on the wrong medicine (Prozac) to control that condition; alcohol dependency, particularly after her father’s death to cancer; and the bulimia that she developed at the age of 17.

Traynor will hold a conference call next week so that Whited and Christine can argue for and against widening the scope of the hearing to include testimony that goes beyond Squires’ actual plea.

Within the next month or so, they will also file motions supporting their positions on whether Squires was fully aware of the implications of her plea.

“She is the nicest human being I have defended in 12 years,” said Alexander, who said he has prosecuted and defended DUI manslaughter cases. “I wish I could wave a magic wand after five years and have her get out.

“I truly think she doesn’t deserve to be in jail any longer.”