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CLEARWATER, Fla. – The rights of an inmate convicted of killing a Willshire, Ohio, family in 1989 were violated at his trial and a new jury should be seated to decide whether he should live or die, an attorney argued in an appeals hearing Friday.
Oba Chandler, 65, is scheduled to die by lethal injection Nov. 15. He listened by phone from his cell on death row and said little as his attorney, Baya Harrison III, mounted what he said would be one of the final attempts to spare his client’s life.
Harrison told Circuit Judge Philip J. Federico that the jury that found Chandler guilty of three counts of first-degree murder should have been the final deciders of whether he deserved the death penalty or life in prison.
In Florida, a jury weighs the “aggravating” and “mitigating” factors and then makes a recommendation to the trial judge. It’s up to the judge to decide whether those factors were sufficiently proved, but he is required to give “great weight” to the jury’s recommendation.
In Chandler’s case, the jury voted unanimously to recommend execution. But Harrison, who acknowledged his argument had “technical problems,” said giving a new jury the ultimate decision to determine whether the aggravating and mitigating factors exist is a matter of Chandler’s right to a fair trial.
“Florida has gotten away, it’s lost its way, in terms of realizing what the meaning of a jury trial means in our democracy,” Harrison said.
Candance M. Sabella, the state’s chief assistant attorney general for capital cases, said Harrison’s argument was baseless and procedurally flawed. She also questioned why Harrison, a court-appointed appellate lawyer for Chandler, waited until now to broach this issue. The murders occurred in 1989, and Chandler was convicted and convicted in 1994.
“There is no merit to this claim,” she said.
Harrison noted that a 2002 U.S. Supreme Court decision out of Arizona supported his argument. But Sabella said the decision has not affected the law in Florida and wouldn’t be retroactive to Chandler’s case anyway.
Federico said he expected to rule Monday.
Chandler was convicted of killing Joan Rogers, 36, and her daughters, Christe, 14, and Michelle, 17. He stripped them from the waist down, bound them with duct tape and yellow rope, and tied concrete blocks to ropes around their necks before throwing them overboard into Tampa Bay, according to authorities. The bodies later floated to the surface.
Prosecutors weren’t certain whether Rogers and her daughters were alive or dead when they were thrown into the bay. The cause of death was either strangulation from the ropes or drowning, authorities said.
Rogers, who had gone with her children to Tampa en route back to Willshire, Ohio, after visiting Disney World, had stopped and asked Chandler for directions to her Tampa motel on June 1, 1989. She and her daughters disappeared that night.
Chandler’s death warrant was the second signed by Gov. Rick Scott since he took office in January.