New Trial Ordered in Stop Sign Case
Mar. 01, 2001
TAMPA, Fla. (AP) _ Manslaughter convictions for three people charged with stealing a stop sign and causing a fatal car accident were overturned by an appeals court and new trials ordered.
The Second District Court of Appeal said Wednesday that errors made in the 1997 trial by prosecutors and the judge warranted a new trial for Thomas Miller, Nissa Baillie and Christopher Cole.
``They might as well just kill us twice,'' said June Farr, the mother of one of the three teen-agers killed in the 1996 accident.
Baillie, Cole and Miller were convicted of manslaughter and grand theft in the 1996 deaths of 18-year-olds Randall White, Kevin Farr and Brian Hernandez.
The teen-agers drove into the path of an 8-ton truck instead of stopping because the sign at the intersection had been taken down and left on the ground.
Baillie and Cole have been free on bail awaiting the appeals court decision. Miller has been in jail since 1999 after being arrested on drug charges.
All three were sentenced to 15 years in prison by Judge Bob Anderson Mitcham, who refused in 1998 to give them a new trial.
The Hillsborough County State Attorney's office said it wanted to review the ruling before making a decision on the case.
Prosecutors have the option of asking the appeals court for a new hearing, appealing to the Florida Supreme Court, going forward with a new trial or dropping the charges.
Baillie, Cole and Miller admitted stealing numerous road signs in the area, but denied taking down the one at the intersection of the crash. Defense attorneys argued there is no evidence linking the three to the stop sign.
The three-judge appeals panel agreed the conviction should be overturned. Judge John Blue, went further to say the charges should have been dropped before the jury had the case.
Judge Charles Davis wrote in the court's opinion that the jury was tainted by prosecutor Leland Baldwin's remarks during closing arguments.
Baldwin made fun of three defense witnesses by comparing them to the dimwitted characters Larry, Daryl and Daryl from the ``Newhart'' show. Baldwin also accused another of being a ``glory hound'' and mischaracterized the expertise of a deputy who said he could tell if people were lying by the way they moved their eyes and the testimony of another state witness.
Baldwin misquoted witness Larry Jarrard regarding when the defendants told him the signs were taken, Davis said.
Jarrard said he believed his friends told him they had taken the signs the day before the crash. In her closing argument, Baldwin characterized Jarrard's recollection as more certain.
The trial judge should have granted a motion for acquittal at the end of the case, Blue added in his opinion.
Baldwin, who is now in private practice, said she did nothing wrong. She said she was disappointed in the ruling but respected the system and did not want to quibble with the judges' opinion.