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Judge denies new trial in stop sign death; 15-year sentence for one youth

June 20, 1997

TAMPA, Fla. (AP) _ A young man and woman were each sentenced to 15 years in prison today for being part of a group who yanked out a stop sign at an intersection, leading to the deaths of three bowling buddies the following day.

Sentencing of the third friend was still under way. The three were convicted of manslaughter last month; each could face 27 to 46 years in prison.

After rejecting a defense request for a new trial, Circuit Judge Bob Mitchum began the long sentencing hearing with defendant Christopher Cole, 20.

``I don’t believe for one minute that you or the other two defendants pulled these signs up with the intent of causing the death of anyone,″ Mitchum told Cole. But pulling up the signs ``has caused ramifications that none of you may have ever expected,″ he said.

``There are no winners in this case. I’ve had difficult cases and this is at the top,″ Mitchum said.

He sentenced Cole to 30 years on the manslaughter charge, but suspended half of that. He then did the same for a bawling Nissa Baillie, turning aside pleas from her pastor for mercy and her family that she was innocent.

``These three defendants were tried and front of a jury of their peers,″ the judge told them. ``The jury convicted them.″

Under Florida law, convicts must serve at least 85 percent of a sentence, meaning the two would serve nearly 13 years in prison.

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.

Cole, 20, said he, 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 they had collected in a river.

The three had 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.

Cole, wearing an orange jail jumpsuit, wept 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 his father, Rodney.

``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.

Mitchum had spent the night pondering whether to order a new trial. He said Thursday that he was considering whether he erred by not separating theft charges from the manslaughter charges.

And he was mulling over the testimony of witness Larry Jarrard, who accused a prosecutor of forcing him to testify to material he really wasn’t sure of. The prosecutor, Leland Baldwin, denied doing anything other than raise her voice at him and demand the truth.

``We have the lives of three young people at stake,″ the judge commented after hearing testimony into the night Thursday. ``We have the deaths of three young people.″

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.″