In a courtroom suffused with tears, a young woman and two men were each sentenced to 15 years in prison Friday after being found guilty of taking down a stop sign at a rural intersection where three other young people later died in a collision with a truck.
Even Circuit Judge Bob Anderson Mitcham struggled to keep from crying as he meted out prison terms to the sobbing defendants, each of whom was convicted last month of three counts of manslaughter and grand theft.
“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,” Mitcham told Christopher Cole, 20, one of the defendants.
Cole, along with Thomas Miller, 20, and Nissa Baillie, 21, admitted taking 19 road signs “for a rush,” as Cole said, but denied tampering with the stop sign that lay face down in the grass the night of Feb. 7, 1996, when a white Camaro carrying three 18-year-olds was broadsided by an 8-ton Mack truck loaded with fertilizer. Killed were Kevin Farr, Brian Hernandez and Randall White.
The senselessness of the crime and the crash were not lost on the judge, who said, “There is not anything that can be done to bring back the lives of the three young people that we’ve lost - nothing. And in essence, we’re losing three more lives.”
Friday’s sentencing was interrupted by one of the six jurors who, in a private conference at the bench, asked for leniency. According to one of the attorneys, the juror told the judge he and the rest of the panel were not aware that the defendants could get such a long sentence.
For more than two hours Friday morning, families of two of the 18-year-old victims, Farr and Hernandez, lined up with the prosecuting team, while the mother of the third victim, White, stood shoulder-to-shoulder with the defendants and their families.
Throughout the procedure, the judge permitted the two sides to appeal not only to him, but to speak directly to each other, often through sobs.
One of the most poignant pleas for mercy was made by Ann Hertle, the mother of White. “I know what Randall would have wanted,” said Hertle, speaking to the families of the other two boys killed. “I asked myself how I would feel if the tables were turned. I don’t believe in an eye for an eye. … Two wrongs don’t make a right.”
Families of the other two victims, however, asked the judge to impose the maximum sentence, contending that the defendants had shown little or no remorse.
Kevin Farr’s mother, June, said she admired Hertle for her stance and “if I felt the way she did, I would be standing over there with her. But you don’t want to trade places with me, believe me,” she said to the defendants’ families.
Miller, sobbing, told the victims’ families, “I feel so sorry for you all. It’s not true that I have no remorse. Many a night I sat up in jail and cried because someone pulled up that stop sign.”
Mitcham, who has a reputation for being a tough sentencer, could have sentenced Friday’s trio to between 30 years and life without parole.
Instead he sentenced each to 30 years in prison, with 15 years suspended, plus five years probation upon their release. Because Florida prisoners must serve at least 85 percent of the sentenced time, the three will spend at least 12-1/2 years in jail.