Assistant Public Defender Regina Nunnally told Circuit Court Judge Terence Perkins on Friday that probationers are required to “walk on water.” If they fail, they get re-arrested and sent to prison.
If you have any doubt, follow along Holly Norris’s odyssey through the probation and judicial system since she was convicted of manslaughter in the 2013 negligent death of her uncle six years ago.
Perkins on Friday sent Norris back to prison for the third time since, this time for five years. She is 44. She has a 9-year-old son. The sentence looks harsher than it is, because it also achieves what her original defense attorney had sought: it ends Norris’s probation ordeals once she leaves prison. And though it’s a five-year term, Norris will leave prison in late September.
Six years ago, when Norris pleaded guilty to manslaughter in the death of John Satanoski, 65, her attorney had his own plea for the court: send her to prison. But whatever her term is, don’t follow it up with probation, or she’ll violate and will be right back in prison.
“When you get out with that hundred dollars or whatever they give you and you don’t have a job, you don’t have a place to stay, your mother is dead, your father is dead, you’re an only child, you’re all of these things, the chance of violating probation are pretty high,” Ray Warren, who was Norris’s attorney at the time, said. (Warren has since retired.) Norris could have been sentenced to anywhere between two years and 11 years. It isn’t unusual for defendants to opt for a somewhat longer prison term, if they can avoid probation. The reason: probation can be a daunting obstacle course for those who have no car, who are poor, and have debts. Norris is all three.
“I just don’t want probation on the tail end of it,” Warren told the judge.
Circuit Judge Matthew Foxman didn’t think the circumstances warranted a harsh sentence. He sentenced Norris to two years. The sentencing guidelines had set a minimum of 33 months. But he followed the prison sentence with 10 years on probation. By then, Norris already been in jail for a year and eight months, so she served five months in state prison and was released.
As Warren predicted, the probation violations began. They haven’t stopped since, the latest occurring last November, and bringing Norris back to court for a sentencing last Friday.
“Judge Foxman, I’m assuming from his sentence, was hoping that a small amount of punishment and a much greater amount of probation would lead to the result he was looking for,” Circuit Judge Terence Perkins said on Friday. “My issue today is, is she a good probationer. Was the assumption that Judge Foxman made that she could do and would do probation successfully–was that a good assumption? He was guessing. We don’t have a crystal ball. We guess like everybody else. See if we put in place all of the mechanisms that we think can make somebody successful, but only they can make themselves successful, we can’t guarantee that. So was that a valid assumption? And that’s what really is the issue today.”
“Obviously this case originated because Ms. Norris has had a severe drug problem,” Assistant State Attorney Melissa Clark said. “As a result of that drug problem, she neglected her uncle, who ultimately passed away. Had she been at the home, that may not have happened and that’s what she was charged with.” The bulk of her original sentence was to address her drug issues, Clark said. “But we have seen violation after violation and we’ve given her multiple opportunities.”
Norris was rearrested in 2019 when she was unable to pay child support. Perkins dismissed the violation report and restored probation, ordering her to pay the $2,000 she owed at a rate of $100 a month. By May 2021, she was again in arrears by $1,000, and failed to report to her probation office. She also refused to submit to a drug test at the facility where she was receiving treatment. She was re-arrested.
She could not post bond: she was indigent, which is also why she was in arrears. On June 23, 2021, Perkins imposed a year’s community control, or house arrest, followed by the remainder of her probation term. Her house arrest conditions were much steeper than probation requirements.
Five months later, she violated again: when she was drug tested by her probation officer, she tested positive for cocaine, and was again rearrested. This time, after she spent four months in jail, Perkins sent her back to prison for three years.
She served only seven months, having 549 days of jail time credited to her sentence. She also had gain time.
When she was released, she still had four years of probation to serve. She was released last Oct. 17. Four weeks later she was at her probation office, where she’d reported for a drug test, on schedule. She produced a sample. Her probation officer told her it was invalid. He ordered her to wait. She left, saying she didn’t have a choice: her ride wouldn’t wait for her. That went down as yet another probation violation.
On Nov. 22, at 2:38 in the morning, deputies announced themselves at her door at 24 Farraday Lane in Palm Coast and arrested her. She’s been in jail 173 days since, awaiting her probation violation hearing. That took place Friday.
Here’s the catch-22 of probation: it is a requirement of probation to report to the probation office whenever asked. It is also a requirement of probation for probationers to hold a job, or to show proof that they are conducting job searches through such places as Career Services. Norris was attempting to do both, and had been scheduled for an appointment at the probation office at 10 a.m., and at noon at the career office.
“I had gone to the office. I submitted a UA,” she told the court Friday, explaining why she’d left the probation office after her urinalysis, or UA. “They wanted a second UA and I had to be at Career Center within like an hour, so it’s 11 o’clock. I had till noon because he was putting me on job searches, and I had a panic attack.” She was not given an explanation about the invalidity of the first UA. She was just given a bottle of water, told to drink and get prepared for a second UA.
“I was overwhelmed,” Norris said. “I left the office without giving a second UA. I totally take responsibility for that. I don’t think I deserve to go to prison for that.”
“It wasn’t like she committed another crime,” Nunnally, her attorney, said. “If she was trying to avoid a positive UA she never would have gave it.” Does that mean she’s a bad probationer, Nunnally asked? No. “Her desire at that time was not to violate. Her desire was to do her thing, to do everything they wanted her to do, but she couldn’t do it.”
Nunnally added: “She has some issues going on. We all do. I have issues in my life. I’m not on probation. So things can happen. She’s on probation. They have to walk on water while everybody else is getting the row the boat to shore. So we’re just asking the court to give her one more chance because you heard: she got the support. She has a place to stay. She has work. She does volunteer. And transportation might be an issue but she got there that day.”
In the few weeks she’d been out of prison the last time she had helped organize an event for the ministry, did construction cleanup to raise money to get her cleaning business reinstated, and had held a job at Community Cats of Palm Coast, which just opened a new location.
LaJuana McKay, a director at Samaritan Ministries, which provides support and housing for abused women, testified on Norris’s behalf at the sentencing hearing. Norris had once been a client there. She is now a volunteer, as she has been at Grace Community food Pantry. She had managed the ministry’s animal rescue operation.
“I didn’t think it was fair that probation called her when she was the only one working and wanted her to come in and she doesn’t have a car,” McKay told the court of earlier probation violations. “So I don’t know how they expected her to get there.” McKay was providing a duplex to Norris to help her complete her probation. She was hoping her probation office would be “more reasonable.”
Clark, the prosecutor, called it “nonsense” that Norris had to leave the probation office to make it to the career office. The likelihood, she said, was that she was attempting to evade a positive outcome to the UA. “I’ve been advocating she needs to go to prison and we need to be done because I don’t think she’s capable of doing probation,” she said, calling for five years in prison, but with all the credit she’s owed.
“Putting her back in prisons is the easy route,” Nunnally said. “But getting her to treatment and giving her another chance I think is a better route.”
Perkins disagreed. He sentenced her to 60 months, or five years, in prison. It seemed harsh. It wasn’t, for two reasons: the sentence is to be served with all that credit Norris has accumulated: 720 days’ local jail credit, plus 33 months already served in state prison, which adds up to 56 months. As a result, she’ll serve barely four months in state prison, since she’s also entitled to additional gain time.
Perkins also did something else to help her. While conceding that she is “not a good probationer,” he not only revoked her probation. He terminated it. So when Norris leaves prison in a few months, she’ll be clear of that burden. Ray Warren, her former attorney, will finally have been heard.