Scheinberg notes that Michelle, Veronika's mother, pushed for the max penalty. (She did not respond to requests for comment.) "She adored that little girl," he says. "She told us she had caught him doing the same thing at least twice before, and she warned him. She was completely devastated. She told us she wanted the death penalty, but we had to explain that wasn't an available sentence."

He points out that unlike so many other parents who accidentally leave their children in hot cars, Balta chose to leave Veronika. "I'm not suggesting he was trying to eliminate the burden of having a child in his life; I just think it was a burden to have a child that day."

Balta's ex-wife, Jenny, with whom he has two children, says he has always been an irresponsible father. "We have two precious kids together, but he was no dad to them even before he went to prison," she says. "My daughter is 9, and he has not seen her since she was under a year old. He chose to walk away from them. If you are gonna paint a picture of him, get all the angles."

Antonio Balta has spent the past five years at Sumter Correctional Institution in Bushnell, Florida. When he gets out, he'll likely be deported.
Florida Department of Corrections
Antonio Balta has spent the past five years at Sumter Correctional Institution in Bushnell, Florida. When he gets out, he'll likely be deported.

Scheinberg resigned from the State Attorney's Office two years ago but says he thinks of this case a lot and believes the sentence was fair.

"Frankly, I'm surprised anybody is outraged over this sentence," he says. "It's not overly extreme. He killed his little girl."

However, a small network of supporters around the country believes Balta has endured enough punishment. Even if he made an egregious error in judgment, they say, a 20-year sentence is too harsh.

Doris Sutton is an 89-year-old poet living in La Hoya, California. She first heard about Balta's case from the news in 2004 when she was visiting Fort Lauderdale. She has met him in prison and now dedicates several hours every week to getting him out. She founded the Committee to Free Antonio Balta, a collection of a dozen or so advocates around the country.

Sutton calls judges, politicians, and reporters regularly to discuss Balta's case. "He's a good man," she says. "He's not a criminal. He's a grieving father. It was an accident. Either deport him now, send him to be with his parents, or just let him out. I want to see him free before I die."

Members of the committee correspond with Balta through letters and Christmas cards, and several have gone to Bushnell to see him. A creative-writing professor at the University of California, Riverside, is working on a screenplay inspired by Balta's struggles and the dedication of his defenders.

Another supporter, Stacey Brodfuehrer, of upstate New York, says, "I just felt compelled to reach out to him. I wanted to tell him that there are people out there who hear about his situation and they don't think it's right."

Sutton has personally written to every member of the Florida Legislature on Balta's behalf at least four times. State Rep. Joe Gibbons, a Democrat from Hallandale Beach, has heard her pleas. Gulfstream Park is in his district.

"You hate to see inconsistencies in our judicial prudence like that," Gibbons says. "I'm not going to blast our justice system, but obviously he didn't have the same kind of representation as the dentist [who was sentenced to probation]. You have to look at the fact he's a person of color. You have to look at his economic level."

In 2007, when he was a rookie representative in the Florida House, the first piece of legislation Gibbons passed was a bill making it a crime to leave any child younger than 6 alone in a motor vehicle for more than 15 minutes. (He says he'd rather not have the 15-minute clause, but "politics are politics." Janette Fennell says, "You should never leave a baby in a car for any amount of time, period.")

While Gibbons' law established a crime, it also set the maximum punishment at five years in prison. Had this legislation passed two years earlier, Gibbons notes, Antonio Balta would be out of prison by now. "But the law can't be retroactive," he explains. His bill will not affect Balta's sentence. Gibbons says that to keep Balta in prison — where he cannot earn income to support his two other children — costs the state about $50,000 every year. If he serves out his entire sentence, Balta will have cost Florida taxpayers more than $1 million. "We're spending money on adjudication and not education," he says. "And when he gets out of prison, he's going to be deported. Who is that helping?"

Because he pleaded guilty, Balta has no chance to appeal his sentence, and because he isn't a U.S. citizen, when he gets out of prison, he'll immediately be deported. The only alternative would be an executive pardon.

Gibbons plans to ask Gov. Charlie Crist to release Balta before he leaves office later this year. A representative from Crist's office says the governor has not yet decided whether he will take up Balta's case.

Just beyond the 14-foot fences, rolls of razor wire, and armed guards of Sumter Correctional Institution lie sprawling green pastures. The air smells like horses — like the stables where Antonio Balta used to sing to Veronika.

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