Sunday, 31 December 2006

Rolling execution closes chapter of area history

Rolling execution closes chapter of area history Danny Rolling is just a memory now.

More than 16 years ago, five college students were brutally slain in Gainesville during the first week of classes at the University of Florida. The crimes sent the community into a panic, and it would take nine anxious months before Rolling was publicly named as a suspect.

Long after he confessed and was sentenced to death, he would make headlines as his case crawled through the appeals process.

Now those stories will be fewer and Rolling will be discussed in the past tense.

"Instead of being a current event, it takes its place in local history," said Spencer Mann, who was spokesman for the Alachua County Sheriff's Office at the time of the murders. He now works for the State Attorney's Office and was a witness at Rolling's execution.

A 52-year-old native of Shreveport, La., Rolling was executed by lethal injection Oct. 25 at Florida State Prison near Raiford. The event attracted throngs of protesters and national media attention. The execution itself will be remembered for Rolling singing a hymn as his last statement and failing to apologize to his victims' families.

Dianna Hoyt, stepmother of victim Christa Hoyt, said even if Rolling would have apologized, she wouldn't have believed it was sincere. After years of dealing with appeals, she said the execution was a relief.

"The next day I woke up and I felt a tremendous burden had been lifted," she said.

She hopes the memory of Rolling will fade, but the community continues to remember the victims. The memorial wall on SW 34th Street provides a lasting reminder of their names: Sonja Larson, Christina Powell, Christa Hoyt, Tracy Paules and Manuel Taboada.

Larson, 18, of Deerfield Beach, and Powell, 17, of Jacksonville, were the first to be found slain. The UF freshmen were discovered in their Williamsburg Village apartment on SW 16th Street on Aug. 26, 1990, the Sunday before classes started.

The next day, officers found the body of Hoyt, 18, of Archer. An Alachua County Sheriff's Office records clerk, she was found in the duplex apartment on SW 24th Avenue where she lived alone.

Two days later, the bodies of Paules and Taboada, both 23 and high school friends from Miami, were discovered in their Gatorwood apartment off Archer Road.

The horrific nature of the killings, which involved the mutilation and posing of the victims, shocked the community and sent UF students fleeing for home. The town was soon filled with law enforcement officers and reporters from across the nation.

Initially suspecting a UF freshman who exhibited bizarre behavior, police eventually turned their attention to Rolling. Ten days after the killing, Rolling had ended up in custody on robbery charges in Marion County. His DNA was later compared to crime scene evidence, proving police had the right man.

In 1994, Rolling entered a guilty plea as jury selection began in his trial. Nonetheless, he would appeal his death sentence on a variety of grounds over the next dozen years.

Rolling's attorney, Baya Harrison, handled his final appeal, arguing the lethal injection procedure was cruel and unusual punishment. The U.S. Supreme Court's rejection of the appeal paved the way for the execution.

The execution by lethal injection appeared to be conducted without problems. But Harrison said Angel Nieves Diaz's Dec. 13 execution, which took two rounds of chemicals and appeared to cause Diaz to writhe in pain, has now caused him to question the whole process.

"I don't know whether Rolling suffered or not," he said.

Mann said he felt the execution was hardly comparable to the pain that Rolling inflicted.

"When you look at everything the families have been through and the community has been through, in a lot of respects the execution pales in comparison," he said.

Harrison said he was disappointed by Rolling's last statement, hoping his client would apologize to his victims. Instead, he sang a gospel hymn for two minutes.

"Thou art the alpha and omega. The beginning and the end. The sound of thy voice stills a mighty wind. None greater than thee oh Lord. None greater than thee," Rolling sang.

But Rolling did clear up one loose end before he died. Before the execution, he gave a note to his minister confessing to a 1989 triple slaying in Louisiana in which he was suspected but never convicted.

Julie Grissom, 24, her nephew Sean Grissom, 8, and her father Tom Grissom, 55, were found stabbed to death in their Shreveport home, almost a year before Rolling's deadly Gainesville crime spree.

Some of the family members of Rolling's victims had said repeatedly that the execution wouldn't provide closure, because the deaths of their loved ones would affect their lives forever.

But Hoyt said the execution did close the book on the killer's story.

"It did help ... a lot more than I thought it would," she said.

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