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    Killer receives 2 life terms

    He escapes the death penalty after killing two women, but he can't avoid a life behind bars.

    By WILLIAM R. LEVESQUE

    © St. Petersburg Times, published September 23, 2000


    LARGO -- Double murderer James Randall escaped death row in April when he won an appeal to the state's highest court.

    But that legal victory saved him only from execution, not from a life behind bars. Pinellas-Pasco Circuit Judge Susan Schaeffer on Friday re-sentenced the 46-year-old Palm Harbor window installer to two consecutive life terms for the 1995 and 1996 strangulation deaths of two Pinellas prostitutes.

    Family members of the two dead Clearwater women, Wendy Evans, 42, and Cynthia Pugh, 27, cried as the sentence was announced.

    "My mother and best friend has been taken away from me," said Evans' daughter, Michele Evans. "That's a void that can never be filled by another. ... Society's safety is in jeopardy if Mr. Randall is released at any time."

    The families of the victims worried about just that -- Randall's eventual release -- after the Florida Supreme Court in April overturned Randall's two convictions on first-degree murder charges in the slayings. He had been convicted after a trial in 1997.

    A jury had unanimously recommended that he be executed, and Schaeffer later sentenced him to death.

    But the Supreme Court ruled this year that Randall could be guilty only of second-degree murder and imposed convictions against Randall for that lesser charge. It sent him back to Schaeffer to be re-sentenced.

    The court said Pinellas prosecutors failed to prove that the killings were premeditated and not simply the accidental consequence of Randall's habit of choking his sexual partners.

    At his 1997 trial, Randall's girlfriend and ex-wife both testified that they had been choked by him during sex. Yet, the court noted, neither was killed.

    That led to a possible conclusion that Randall didn't intend to kill the two women but simply choked them for his sexual gratification, the Supreme Court ruling said.

    State Attorney Bernie McCabe said at the time of the ruling that the decision puzzled him.

    "Assuming the court's logic is valid," McCabe said, "I can see it maybe for the first killing. But I have a hard time stretching it for the second one. If you know you kill people when you do this, how many times do you get to say, "Oops'?"

    Sentencing guidelines for Randall's new second-degree murder convictions called for a sentence of 23 to 39 years in prison.

    But his attorneys, Michael Schwartzberg and Kevin Crowell, said they were under no illusion that their client would receive a sentence within that range.

    Indeed, prosecutor Glenn Martin asked Schaeffer to sentence Randall as a habitual violent felony offender. Randall qualified because he had been convicted in his native Massachusetts of rape and kidnapping charges in 1986.

    Though defense attorneys disputed that he qualified as a habitual offender, Schaeffer agreed with the prosecutor and sentenced Randall to life in prison.

    Randall is eligible for parole after serving 15 years of each murder conviction. Because the terms are consecutive, he is not eligible for parole until 30 years have passed. But again, his lawyers are realistic.

    "With the consecutive life terms, he'll never get out," said Schwartzberg. "Life is life. Anyone in the Department of Corrections can tell you that."

    Randall didn't say anything to the judge before he was re-sentenced, and he didn't appear to react at all as the judge imposed the new sentence.

    The judge said she wondered whether Randall qualified to be incarcerated under the Jimmy Ryce Act, a state law that lets officials lock up sex offenders for treatment indefinitely after their prison terms end. That might come into play, Schaeffer said, "if the parole board for any reason I can't imagine ever paroles Mr. Randall."

    Evans' body was found in Oldsmar on Oct. 25, 1995. Pugh's body was found in Palm Harbor on Jan. 18, 1996.

    A tire track in the mud 7 feet from Evans' body led investigators to a 1985 Dodge pickup owned by Randall's girlfriend, but which Randall had been driving. Prosecutors pieced together a circumstantial case by using carpet fibers and other evidence linking him to the bodies.

    Prosecutors also suspect Randall in the killings of Clearwater prostitutes Ladonna Steller and Peggy Darnell, in addition to a fifth suspected victim, Holly Cote, in Massachusetts, where he lived.

    Prosecutors have previously said that charges against Randall in connection with the other slayings are unlikely, though they note the killings stopped when he was arrested.

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