250 service hours added in stop sign case
By DAVID KARP
© St. Petersburg Times,
TAMPA -- Two defendants in the so-called missing stop sign case were ordered Thursday to spend 250 hours talking to children about their experience.
Circuit Judge Rex Barbas made the community service part of the five years of probation Nissa Baillie and Christopher Cole are to serve for their admitted theft of traffic signs.
Baillie, Cole and co-defendant Thomas Miller were recently cleared of charges they caused a fatal car accident when they stole a stop sign in 1995. Earlier this year, an appeals court set aside their 1997 manslaughter conviction, and last month, the state attorney's office decided not to refile charges.
The trio admitted to stealing dozens of traffic signs in the east Hillsborough area, but they denied they were the ones who pulled a stop sign from the ground and left the dangerous intersection unprotected.
Kevin Farr, Randall White and Brian Hernandez, all 18, were killed when they drove into the path of an 8-ton truck. Some members of the victims' families have criticized the decision to drop the case.
"For the record," Barbas said, "I admire the State Attorney's Office for their actions in regard to this case."
Barbas agreed to withhold adjudication of guilt, which means Baillie and Cole will not have a criminal record if they complete their probation. They must also pay $750 to replace the traffic signs they stole and pay court costs.
Normally, Barbas acknowledged, he would not sentence someone to five years of probation for stealing signs. But this case was different because stealing a traffic sign can create a public safety hazard, he said.
Assistant State Attorney Curt Morgan asked Barbas to uphold the convictions on the grand theft charges. "This is a theft that created a real and present danger to that community," Morgan said.
Since their arrest, the two have reformed their lives, attorney Caroline Tesche said. Baillie, 25, has given birth to a son, attended parenting classes and taken classes toward her high school equivalency degree. Cole, 24, has gotten engaged to be married, maintained a steady job and become a regular member of his church.
They didn't get into any legal trouble since their arrests in 1996.
"I learned my lesson," Cole said.
He particularly wanted his conviction erased so he could vote.
Miller, 24, will go before Barbas in June to ask for a reduction in his sentence. He was convicted on unrelated drunk driving and drug charges while out on bail during the stop sign case. He served more than a year in jail on those charges.
"What a lousy deal they got," Miller's attorney, Joe Episcopo, said of Baillie and Cole. "They have done five years' probation already because were wrongly prosecuted and convicted of a homicide they didn't commit."
- Information from the Associated Press was used in this report.
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