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One killer, two decades, few clear answers

A film crew for Discovery ID was in town this week, stirring up ghosts and the story of a man who did not die no matter how many times juries said he should.

I was a student at USF when it happened, driving to classes past the Church's Fried Chicken where Natalie Blanche Holley was a night manager. They found two more victims on a December day in 1986, a bank clerk named Teri Lynn Matthews and Stephanie Collins, a pretty high school senior who vanished from the Carrollwood suburbs, where it was supposed to be safe.

The case broke a couple of years later on a phone call that led detectives to a rapist doing time in Ohio. I was a reporter then, and when they brought Oscar Ray Bolin, this long-haul trucker and carnie nicknamed Needles, to court, he was whip-skinny and mean-looking. His eyes were flat.

At his trial, the mothers sat side by side, there for each other and their daughters. The first jury took only 25 minutes to say he should die for what he did (the electric chair back then.) Stephanie's mother called it the best beginning they could hope for. "It's not over yet," she said. It wasn't.

He was tried, convicted and had his case overturned, retried and convicted again. It wasn't that the more than 100 jurors who sat across from him over the years weren't sure. One jury took all of seven minutes to say death, barely enough time to vote, write it down and press the buzzer for the bailiff.

More than 20 years passed and here was Bolin still, in suits finer than what his lawyers wore, Armani, we decided in the press room. They were given to him by a woman who worked at the Public Defender's Office and then, bizarrely, married him in a particularly cruel sideshow. He had glasses, gray hair and a paunch, like some office worker, and always that flat stare.

The terrible crime scene photos kept coming back, Stephanie in the Keds and slouch socks the girls wore at Chamberlain High back then. The mothers came over and over, side by side. Last year, Holley's mother got the news at the nursing home that he was convicted again. She died weeks later.

All of this will give believers in the death penalty reason to beat their chests against endless appeals. Those opposed can say we should have put him away for life the first time.

Here is a truth: There was no great mistake in his cases, no sure place to lay blame. If we intend to kill someone for killing someone, we scrutinize every detail of his arrest and trial. We protect his rights. Even his.

The law evolves. It is open to interpretation. Did Bolin waive spousal privilege when he left a note in an attempted jailhouse suicide, saying they should talk to his wife? Who, as it turned out, knew a lot?

After 10 trials, two death sentences stuck. Bolin is in a 6- by 9-foot cell on Florida's death row, eating meals with a spork, showering every other day — and likely awaiting word of what he can do next to stop what is coming.

Two of his attorneys, among the best I was lucky enough to see, have died. The first judge is long gone. Mark Ober, once Bolin's lawyer, is state attorney. Craig Latimer, then a homicide sergeant, is elections supervisor. And this week, some of us still around sat with a film crew, trying to give answers that made sense after all these years.

One killer, two decades, few clear answers 04/12/13 [Last modified: Friday, April 12, 2013 8:03pm]

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