Prosecutor-to-be finishes public defender role
By JOUNICE L. NEALY
© St. Petersburg Times, published December 13, 2000
LARGO -- Less than three weeks away from officially becoming Hillsborough County's top prosecutor, Mark Ober was ready Tuesday for his last trial as a defense attorney.
Ober and co-counsel Norman Cannella were prepared to pick a jury, give opening statements and call witnesses in the first-degree murder case against 20-year-old John W. Peel, who is accused of shaking to death his 8-week-old son in 1998.
After negotiating all morning with attorneys in the presence of his parents, Peel pleaded no contest to a lesser charge of aggravated manslaughter. Peel was sentenced to 10 years in prison, and Ober ended his criminal defense career.
"This is it," said Ober, 49, after the case ended. "I'm changing hats."
Ober, a former homicide prosecutor who has been licensed to practice law since 1977, will start as Hillsborough's state attorney on Jan. 2. Ober, a Republican, defeated Democrat Robert Shimberg in the Nov. 7 election.
He will take over an office thrown into upheaval after State Attorney Harry Lee Coe committed suicide in July and reports about his gambling debt and impending criminal charges became public.
Ober, who started his private practice in 1987, has promised to restore the public's faith in the State Attorney's Office and boost morale among employees.
But he also was committed to finishing his role as one of Peel's defense attorneys.
More than a dozen of Peel's supporters sobbed when Pinellas-Pasco Circuit Judge Dee Anna Farnell imposed the sentence. She then allowed them each to hug Peel goodbye, one by one, while Peel stood in the jury box.
Peel faced mandatory life in prison if he had been convicted on the first-degree murder charge. He pleaded not guilty to that charge and also to second-degree murder.
"All I can say, Mr. Peel, is never give up . . . use your time wisely," Farnell said.
Cannella said that the plea deal was "probably a very unusual disposition in view of the charge. It was a very inflammatory-type case," especially given the age of the victim.
Peel was described as a loving, teenage father. He woke during the night, fed his son and changed his diapers. But prosecutors say in June 1998, the 18-year-old got frustrated with his son's crying and shook John Peel Jr. to death.
On Tuesday, the baby's mother said she wanted to apologize to Peel's family.
"I feel all of this was an accident and I still love him," said Nikki Grubbs. She was sleeping during the incident, according to investigators. She woke up and found the baby dead on the floor. She was not charged.
The couple met while at Gibbs High School and Grubbs said Peel was her first love.
Ober said he had not expected Peel to plead out, but Cannella said "the case had its ups and downs on both sides."
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