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Suddenly, stop sign case is over

Rather than go to trial for a second time, State Attorney Mark Ober drops manslaughter charges in the accident that killed three teens in 1996.

By DAVID KARP

© St. Petersburg Times, published May 22, 2001


Rather than go to trial for a second time, State Attorney Mark Ober drops manslaughter charges in the accident that killed three teens in 1996.

TAMPA -- The case began on a country road where a stop sign lay on the ground.

Three teenagers out cruising on Feb. 7, 1996, drove past the fallen sign and into the path of an 8-ton Mack truck. Later, sheriff's deputies would accuse three young friends of stealing the stop sign and causing the deaths.

What began five years ago as a sign-stealing spree grew into a lesson, chronicled on national TV, about the consequences of a prank.

On Monday, the famous "stop sign" case came to an abrupt end when State Attorney Mark Ober dropped manslaughter charges against Nissa Baillie, Christopher Cole and Thomas Miller, rather than take the case to trial a second time.

"Given the opinion of the 2nd District Court of Appeal, and evidence and testimony as it now exists, we are certain we cannot proceed to trial," said Pam Bondi, Ober's spokeswoman.

In March, the state appeals court threw out the convictions won in the first trial in 1997 because of a prosecutor's mistakes.

Ober was subdued Monday as he left Circuit Judge Rex Barbas' chambers after telling the judge about his decision. Ober had already met with the families of Kevin Farr, Randall White and Brian Hernandez, who died in the crash. He wouldn't discuss his decision.

The families of the victims could not be reached for comment.

The case, debated on Larry King Live and The Today Show, not only captivated the nation's media attention, it divided lawyers and prosecutors in the courthouse.

And it got stranger as it progressed.

At one point, the trial judge heard testimony via closed-circuit TV from home while recovering from a broken hip. Another time, a prosecutor accused of misconduct lost her voice when called to testify about the accusations and had to communicate by notes.

After learning the news Monday, Thomas Miller, who faced a 15-year prison sentence along with his friends, called his aunt, Betty Gaffney. Miller had been scheduled to be in court today for a hearing in the case.

"We are not going to court tomorrow," Miller told her.

"How come?" she asked.

"We ain't ever going back to court!" Miller said.

She let out a yell.

Miller, who now hopes to open his own auto detailing business, said he wasn't surprised.

"When they said they were going to take a look at it, I knew they would look at it," Miller said. "I knew they weren't going to railroad it and win at all costs."

Miller, who spent 18 months in jail after an arrest on unrelated drug charges, said the experience changed him.

"It gave me time to sit and look at myself and do a personal inventory, and grow up a bit," said Miller, 24. "I'm an adult now, and we are not playing little games anymore."

The other defendants want to move on with their lives, too. Cole, 24, who inspects construction sites, is engaged to be married. Baillie, 25, has given birth.

The prosecutors who brought the case said they believe in what they did.

"Unless some things happened that I don't know about, I would have gone forward," said former prosecutor Paul Duval Johnson, who left the State Attorney's Office after Ober was elected. "It's his call to make. "I think it was a good prosecution. I think it was a creative prosecution. It was the right thing to do."

Lead prosecutor Leland Baldwin, who left the office for an unsuccessful bid for a circuit judgeship, said she knew from the beginning the case would be hard to win.

She said former State Attorney Harry Lee Coe told her she couldn't lose with the case.

"He goes, "It's a no-loser for you,' " she recalled. "No one expects you to win, and if you win, you're a hero.

"But now because of the age of the case, I respect Mark Ober's decision."

She added, "I do feel real pain for the victim's families."

The state appeals court cited Baldwin's closing argument in March when it threw out the convictions. The court said Baldwin improperly characterized a key witness' testimony and implied that a deputy could tell if someone was lying by watching their eyes.

But Ober's bigger problem was a key witness, Larry Jarrad, who later admitted lying during testimony at the trial. Jarrad said Baldwin threatened to "burn his ass" if he didn't incriminate his friends; Baldwin denied the accusation.

Without Jarrad as a credible witness, prosecutors had no one directly linking the friends to the stop sign, lawyers said. The friends admitted taking other signs, but all denied taking the stop sign that caused the crash.

"There was not enough evidence," said attorney Joe Episcopo, who appeared so often on television that he learned to wear make-up for TV. "They can't use the signs. They don't have Larry Jarrad. So how can they prove the case?"

Attorney Caroline Tesche praised Ober for making a difficult call.

"It takes a lot of courage for the state attorney to do that," said Tesche. "Trying to correct a tragedy by creating another one is not right. It would have been a tragedy to try this case again."

- Times staff writers Angela Moore and Alex Leary and researcher John Martin contributed to this report.

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