Shortly before midnight on February 7, 1996, three 18-year-old young men were killed when their car was broadsided by a semi-truck in the middle of an intersection in Hillsborough County, Florida.
Police said the stop sign protecting the intersection had been removed and was lying out of sight on the side of the road. As a result, the victims, Kevin Farr, Brian Hernandez and Randall White, drove into the intersection without stopping and were hit by the truck which had the right of way.
Two months later, on April 4, 1996, police charged 20-year-old Nissa Baillie, 19-year-old Christopher Cole
and 19-year-old Thomas Miller
with manslaughter and grand theft.
Police said the three had stolen nearly two dozen signs in the area and were responsible for taking down the stop sign that the three victims didn’t see, causing them to enter the intersection without the right of way, and as a result were killed.
The defendants admitted in interviews with police that they had stolen numerous signs and that some of them were tossed into a creek after the accident to cover up their actions. However, they told police they stole signs at least a week and perhaps two weeks prior to the accident and they said they did not take down the stop sign at the intersection where Farr, Hernandez and White were killed.
All three defendants went on trial in Hillsborough County Circuit Court in the spring of 1997. Larry Jarrard, a friend of the defendants, testified for the prosecution. Jarrard said he helped dispose of the signs that were tossed into the creek after the accident. When asked by the prosecutor when the signs were stolen, Jarrard said he believed that the defendants told him the thefts occurred the night before the accident.
The prosecution contended that the defendants unbolted signs and took them to the trailer where all three lived in nearby Polk County. According to the prosecution, the defendants were in the process of stealing the stop sign at the scene of the accident when another vehicle came along and they fled, leaving the sign on the ground. The prosecution introduced a total of 21 signs that were recovered either in the creek or in the trailer where the defendants lived.
Cole testified for the defense that the first sign they stole was a spur of the moment decision and then they took others. He said they took the signs at least five days prior to the crash. Cole said that sometimes they pulled signs out of the ground and left them, but he denied that he and his friends had pulled out the stop sign at the intersection where the crash occurred.
The defense called an expert who testified that he examined the stop sign post and he believed something had pushed the sign over.
A man who was driving to a luncheon the day before the crash testified that as he pulled up to the intersection, he saw a semi-truck backing up across the road toward the sign. He said that when he came back after lunch, the stop sign was on the ground.
On May 14, 1997, the jury convicted Baillie, Cole and Miller of manslaughter and grand theft. Prior to sentencing, the defense filed a motion for a new trial. At a hearing on the motion, Jarrard testified that he had lied when he said he believed the defendants told him they had taken the signs a day before the crash. Jarrard said he tried to tell the prosecutor that the signs the defendants took were taken several days prior to the crash, but the prosecutor told him she would “burn his ass” and he believed he would be charged with destroying evidence unless he testified that the thefts occurred the day before. The prosecutor denied making the threat.
The judge denied the motion for a new trial and sentenced each of the defendants to 15 years in prison. All three defendants were allowed to remain free on bond pending their appeal.
In 1998, the defense filed a post-conviction motion for a new trial. At a hearing on the motion, several witnesses testified that they had driven by the intersection days before the accident and the stop sign was already down. Some of the witnesses said that after the charges were filed, they reported to both Hillsborough County Sheriff’s detectives and the prosecution that the sign had been down for days, but the information was disregarded. One of the witnesses said she spoke to the prosecutor who disregarded the report and replied that she intended to “burn their ass,” referring to the defendants.
The motion for a new trial was denied, and the defendants appealed the decision. In March 2001, the Florida Court of Appeals reversed the manslaughter convictions of all three defendants. The court held that the prosecution had made improper comments during closing argument. The court did not reverse the grand theft convictions.
On May 21, 2001, the Hillsborough County District Attorney’s Office dismissed the manslaughter charges. The defendants were resentenced on the grand theft convictions to perform community service and the convictions were dismissed after they successfully completed their service.
– Maurice Possley