(Editor’s Note: This is the first in a two-part series).
Danny Norris Jr. lives his life like most every one else in Frostproof.
He gets up early each weekday morning and goes to work, where he is considered a model employee who regularly draws praise from his supervisors.
When he’s not working, he takes classes, looking to improve himself for a better life. He enjoys time spent with family and friends.
His life is normal in almost every way possible, but one. Norris doesn’t rise from a comfortable bed to sip coffee on his veranda before heading to work, or go to Polk State College to take his classes.
That’s because Norris isn’t in Frostproof, he is in prison, serving a 15-year sentence related to the 2004 deaths of two friends, Ricky Russ and Mitch Venable. The two were in Norris’s pickup truck traveling at a high rate of speed on Walk In The Water Road that fateful November night. The truck left the roadway and flipped, all three were ejected from the 2001 Toyota Tundra, killing Norris’s two friends.
After a long series of appeals, and ultimately a plea deal which reduced his 30-year DUI manslaughter sentence to 15 years, Norris Jr. is hoping to get a clemency hearing in the near future to allow him to return to his hometown.
It is, at best, a long, long shot. Hundreds of such requests are filed with the Florida Clemency Board each year — the board consists of Gov. Rick Scott, and the three other state constitutional officers, Attorney General Pam Bondi, Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam, and Chief Financial Officer Paul Atwater — but precious few, if any, are even heard.
Since 1980, the total number of successful commutation of sentence (COS) appeals is 145, and almost a quarter of that number — 37 requests — were approved in just two years, 1993 and 1994.
Of the 145 cases, 10 involved DUI manslaughter charges like Norris’s, but none had anything close to a 30-year original sentence. In almost all of the 10, the commutation of sentence was for time served, sometimes with a probationary period attached.
According to a spokesperson from the Florida Parole Commission, they received 750 review requests for commutation of sentences in 2012. None made it to the clemency board itself. In 2013, of the 654 COS applications, two made it to the board, and one was approved, the first since 2010.
That case involved cocaine trafficking, with an original sentence of 20 years, 15 mandatory, for Joseph Francis Kelly, who had served those 15 years. The clemency board put him on probation for an additional five years after his release Dec. 12, 2013.
Despite those enormous odds. Norris and his family, along with a who’s who in Frostproof and on the Ridge, are hoping that the board will consider his case.
After his initial trial, more than 100 community members wrote the judge, citing Norris’ tremendous dedication to the city’s fire department, and other volunteer work, asking for leniency. The opposite happened.
Each acknowledged the poor decisions that Norris made in the wee hours of the morning Nov. 6, 2004, and that releasing Norris now obviously can’t change the horrible details of that night. But also they all note that keeping him behind bars now serves little purpose, and that his story and potential to positively impact young people and the community is a better outcome now to a tragedy that touched many.
But of all those with a thought, there is perhaps none more credible than those from Greg Albritton, who spent 35 years in the Florida Department of Corrections and retired as the deputy warden at the Henry Correctional Institute in Immokalee.
“I’d have to ask this question. How is society benefiting by Danny Norris staying incarcerated for 15 years? I think society is losing in keeping someone like Danny. He was, and I’m sure will return as, a good citizen, a good member of the community. He was a positive in the community,” Albritton said. “What are we gaining by keeping him in prison? Did he have a role? He did. I don’t know what that role was, but I can say this, society is not benefiting by keeping him. He’s no danger to society. Incarceration is a last resort, it’s for keeping those people that are a threat to us, away from us, and Danny Norris is no threat to anyone in Frostproof or anywhere else in my opinion.”
City Manager T.R. Croley wrote of Norris’s help during the devastating hurricanes of 2004, when Norris hopped onto a front loader and started to help to clear debris, not so much as an exemplary volunteer firefighter, which he was, but because it was the right thing to do.
He never charged anyone a dime.
“It’s my understanding that he was paying for this loader to begin his own business,” Crowley recalled. She called him “an exceptional young man” and “one of the most well-mannered young men I have ever known. He has extremely high ethical values.”
Retired Frostproof Fire Chief Bill Lord also remembers Norris Jr. and for good reason, recalling his interview before joining the volunteer fire dept.
“His has been one of the best interviews of any candidate,” Lord noted. “Daniel went on to become one of the best firefighter-EMTs in this department. I admired his determination to become the best because he had a genuine belief in his service to community of helping others.”
Lord also remembered his work in 2004, as did many.
“He did not quit until all debris was removed from the city,” Lord wrote.
“Daniel worked for months (many 24-hour days) around the clock to clean up. His outstanding work and dedication toward this effort and that of the Frostproof Fire Department did not go unnoticed by the entire community,” added Raymond Chatlos, retired as the Polk County Emergency Medical Services director.
“He worked long hours, refusing to take any pay,” recalled local Realtor Wesley Wise. “He felt it was his duty to help those people in need.”
The Chairman of the Florida Citrus Commission Martin McKenna, noted that being behind bars isn’t a productive situation at this point in time.
“Daniel and his family will continue to pay an enormous price for his actions for the rest of Daniel’s life, either in prison or out,” McKenna noted. “Florida would benefit by allowing Daniel Jr. to come home and become a productive, active citizen while remaining supervised by the state.”
Retired Frostproof Fire Deputy Chief Ken Davis had another reason to be thankful for Norris’s service.
“At a structure fire, Daniel, with the help of another firefighter, pulled me out of a burning house where I had fallen through the floor,” Davis remembers. “This demonstrates his character, courage and dedication to help others regardless to his own safety.”
To this day, there are huge unanswered questions about that night. Norris was with a group of friends and acquaintances hanging out in the parking lot of a Scenic Drive restaurant when a Ford Thunderbird swerved close to the group. Norris and others jumped in their vehicles, and the chase was on, north on Scenic and right on County Road 630.
According to testimony from several young adults initially involved, all the vehicles, other than Norris’, collectively stopped chasing at the intersection of County Road 630 and Walk In The Water Road, in and of itself an amazing coincidence, contradicted by a man who lived very close to the spot where the Norris truck rolled.
A resident on Walk In The Water Road, in a report filed by a Polk County Sheriff’s Office investigator, said he heard the crash.
“He said he walked out to his gate by the road to see if he could help. But there were already people out with the crashed pickup,” the report said “There were already people … talking on a cellphone ... telling someone what just happened,” the witness said. He confirmed a gray car at the crash site and that while “he can’t swear to it,” he also believes there was a white pickup at the scene.
Bruce Calhoun, the man who heard the crash and saw other people and vehicles stopped at the scene, was never called as a witness at the trial.
The longest-sentenced DUI manslaughter case out of the 10 that have been commuted since 1980 also happens to be one of the most recent and rare success stories.
Suzanne Squires was originally sentenced to 23 years in prison for DUI manslaughter. She was behind bars for 11 years total before her commutation of sentence to time served was granted. Her four-year old daughter died in a 1999 crash, which also seriously injured her two other children and the driver of a van she hit on U.S. 1. Norris’ time served is now approaching that mark.
Approving Norris’ COS would hardly be precedent setting.
Of the other nine DUI manslaughter cases, the lowest commuted original sentence was three years, nine months, and the longest, before Squires, was 19 years. Most of the commuted original sentences were in the range of eight to 12 years, and one was for 12 years of probation only.
There were so many friends and supporters for the Squires hearing that a bus was chartered to bring them all to the Tallahassee hearing. However, all four members of the clemency board were different in 2010 than they are today. The board schedules meetings quarterly, with the next parley set on Sept. 10.
Albritton, who has known Norris all his life, hopes they will listen.
“All of my contact with little Danny was such a positive. He was yes sir, no sir, respected his elders, he was just a really nice young man,” he said. “I never saw a beer in his hand. Never heard a cuss word come out of his mouth. The punishment just didn’t fit the action.”