James Vernon Smith Jr. says he’s not your typical drunk.
And typical he is not.
The 48-year-old former underwater welder who lives in Louisiana but has family in the Tampa area was handed his 10th drunken-driving conviction Thursday in Hillsborough Circuit Court.
He was sentenced to 10 years in prison despite an emotional plea by Smith, the father of two young daughters. He said he was ashamed and sorry for his actions, and he cried and paused often while reading a handwritten letter in court.
“I have often been handed the keys to the kingdom,” he told Circuit Judge Kimberly Fernandez, “only to have left them on the bar somewhere.”
Smith was arrested in August 2011 and charged with driving under the influence for the 10th time. He also was charged with driving with a permanently revoked driver’s license. He was released on bail and within a couple of weeks had been arrested on his 11th DUI charge. That case is scheduled for court next month.
Of all his DUI arrests, only two involved wrecks, and they were minor. No one has ever been hurt, his attorney said.
Smith — his wrists in handcuffs that were attached to leg shackles — wept in court.
“I’m sorry for my actions,” he said. “I am more than ashamed of my behavior and thank God my actions never caused harm to anyone else.”
He said prison won’t help his bouts with depression and alcoholism.
“I want to stop being a danger to myself and everyone around me,” he said. “Please do not throw me away and forget about me. I’m more than just a drunk.”
His attorney, Mark O’Brien, argued that intensive therapy would better benefit Smith and society.
Mental health expert Robert Whitford said Smith suffers from severe depression and other mood disorders and has never received helpful mental health treatment. And he won’t get it in prison, Whitford said. The Florida Department of Corrections, he said, “doesn’t have a lot of guys who do this kind of stuff.”
O’Brien said there are heavily supervised treatment alternatives outside prison walls for defendants such as Smith.
But Fernandez opted for prison, sentencing Smith as a habitual felony offender.
“It’s very difficult for this court to excuse his conduct,” she said, because Smith’s record showed a “flagrant disregard of the law.”
Still, she included mental health and substance abuse therapy as part of the sentence. After the 10-year term is served, Smith will begin five years of probation, which will include mandatory psychological evaluation and treatment.
Smith’s DUI record spans 30 years. Most were in Florida, one was in Georgia and two were in Louisiana, records show. His driver’s license was permanently revoked in 1984.
“He hasn’t had a driver’s license since before I was born,” said Assistant State Attorney Christian Tsoubanos, who pressed for the maximum 15 years in prison.
Smith was emotionless when the sentence was handed down. Later, O’Brien said his client had hoped for leniency, but he was realistic.
“These are his words to me,” the defense attorney said, “‘There is no one responsible for the position I’m in but me.'”