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A new normal at the Church of the Razor Wire

By Liz Brown, Dateline Producer

Carol Kent grew up the daughter of a preacher. Religion has always been her touchstone. That and her love of family. But this devoted Christian doesn't go to church on Sundays anymore.

Carol and her husband have a new Sunday ritual. They still put on their best clothes and pile into their car, minds filled with anticipation for what is ahead. When they arrive, they might chat with their fellow congregants, and nod to the staff as they take their places. But instead of a church, their new Sunday destination is a Florida prison. Their pews are plastic chairs, the congregants are visiting families, and the staff pack guns. Carol calls it the Church of the Razor Wire.

Photo: Jason Kent with his parents Carol and Eugene Kent.

How do you keep your faith when your only child has been convicted of first-degree murder and there is no doubt that he did it? Carol says she and her husband faced a stark choice. "Gene and I both had to decide: Are we going to live," Carol told us in a heartfelt interview, "or are we going to curl up in a ball and die?"  She says they chose life and describes it as "a new kind of normal," which happens to be the title of a book she's written that came out last year

Carol's book got me thinking. Everyone ensnared in this terrible tragedy has had to adapt to "A New Kind of Normal." Whether it's the father of the victim, Doug Miller, who was gunned down in a parking lot by Carol's son in 1999 (he can still barely talk about what happened to his son without breaking down). Whether it's Doug Miller's daughters who lost both their biological dad and their stepfather in that single act of death. Or whether it's Jason Kent himself. Once a bright-eyed Naval lieutenant, he is now an immaculately dressed lifer at Hardee Correctional Institution. What does normal mean for him and does it include accepting responsibility for what he did?

Jason Kent's new kind of normal is a waiting game. He has a tedious daily routine. He helps the prison chaplain. He works in the library. He takes exercise in the yard. But above all the man who wanted to make a difference to the world is now dedicated, he says, to making a difference to his fellow prisoners.

"Recognizing that I can't fix the past," he told us, "what I try to do is try to be a benefit or a blessing or an encouragement to the guys that I come in contact with."

Jason says he mentors and tries to comfort prisoners who are not lifers. Men who will be getting out. Even if he never walks in freedom himself, he says, he will at least have had some kind of impact on the outside world.

But that doesn't mean Jason has given up on the outside world. Jason may have exhausted all his legal appeals, but in April 2006 his lawyer, Reginald Garcia, filed a clemency petition on his behalf with the Governor of Florida, arguing that Jason's sentence should be commuted. It's a longshot. Garcia says that in the last 27 years only 133 commutation applications have been approved.

Even Jason's own dad admits his son doesn't deserve a "get out of free jail card." He just wonders whether Jason deserves to be in prison for the rest of his life. Because of mandatory sentencing guidelines, the judge at Jason's trial didn't have a choice about sending him to prison for the rest of his life. His parents argue that there is something wrong with our justice system when a man who says he killed someone to protect his family is given the same sentence as a serial killer. But then again who really is the best person to make those kinds of distinctions? A life lost is a life lost. Doug Miller's father has said he would fight any move to release the murderer of his son.

Clemency petitions can take years to be processed and until then Jason will live with his new normal. As will his mother and his father. That means spending more time at the Church of the Razor Wire.

The story of Jason Kent's conviction for murder will be told in a very special Dateline airing Friday, March 21 at 9pm ET on NBC.

Field producer Leonor Ayala blogs about going to the Florida prison to interview Jason Kent.