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Judge denies new trial for youths convicted in stop sign death

June 20, 1997

TAMPA, Fla. (AP) _ A judge today denied a new trial for three young people convicted of manslaughter for yanking out a stop sign at an intersection where three bowling buddies died the following day.

The three, convicted of manslaughter, asked for a new trial after a key witness accused a prosecutor of forcing him to lie and the mother of one of the dead joined their fight, saying investigators manipulated evidence.

But Circuit Judge Bob Mitchum rejected the new-trial request today and immediately went into a lengthy sentencing hearing.

``I’m going to do what I would want a judge to do for me. ... I’m going to sleep on it tonight,″ the judge had said late Thursday, after hearing testimony late into the night.

``We have the lives of three young people at stake. We have the deaths of three young people.″

Kevin Farr, Brian Hernandez and Randall White, all 18, were killed on Feb. 7, 1996, when their white Camaro breezed through the intersection and into the path of an 8-ton truck. The youths were out driving after a night of bowling.

A stop sign was found lying on the roadside near the accident.

Christopher Cole, 20, said he, Nissa Baillie, 21, and 20-year-old Thomas Miller stole as many as 19 signs along the rural roads of Hillsborough County, some 20 miles east of Tampa, the night before the accident. But Cole told jurors during last month’s trial that he and his friends didn’t touch the stop sign at the intersection where the three friends lost their lives.

Cole, Baillie and Miller also said they panicked when they heard about the accident and ditched the signs in a river.

As the sentencing hearing got under way, Cole was up first, standing in an orange jail jumpsuit and crying as his attorney and family members pleaded with the judge for leniency.

``I believe he is innocent to this charge. To sentence him to a long term would be to pile tragedy upon tragedy,″ said Rodney Cole, father of Christopher Cole.

``A lengthy prison sentence would be taking away my fishing partner, my hunting buddy and best friend,″ said Cole’s older brother, Robert.

But Farr’s father, Les, argued against leniency.

``They received the maximum penalty _ death _ which was caused by these people here,″ he said.

``It is obvious that the reason that the accident happened is because the stop sign was missing.″

``I ask that you give the maximum penalty that is allowable,″ he said.

Jurors took less than four hours to render their verdict.

Each of the three faces 27 to 46 years in prison.

Mitchum had said he was considering whether he erred by not separating theft charges from the manslaughter charges. And he was mulling over the testimony of prosecution witness Larry Jarrard.

Jarrard now says prosecutor Leland Baldwin forced him to testify that Cole told him they had stolen road signs in the area the night before the accident.

``I told her, `Now look, I can’t really be sure,‴ Jarrard said at the sentencing hearing. ``She said something along the lines of `Now you told me you were relatively certain. You’d better tell me what you told me that day because if you don’t, I’m going to burn your a--.‴

Jarrard, who helped Cole and another defendant dump the batch of stolen signs into a river after the accident, said he was afraid he’d be charged with destroying evidence if he didn’t go along. He was granted immunity before testifying.

Baldwin denied Jarrard’s claims.

``He said, `Well, I don’t know about that,′ regarding the signs being stolen before the crash,″ she testified. ``I raised my voice and said, `Larry, you must tell the truth. This is important.‴

Ann Hertle, White’s mother, has said she believes the three friends are innocent because investigators gave her inconsistent theories and conflicting facts and manipulated evidence against the three.

``I couldn’t go to court during the trial,″ she said last week. ``If I went, I would have been sitting on the defense side, not with prosecutors.″

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