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Set to die Nov. 15, Oba Chandler listens by phone as lawyers argue his fate

LARGO — The voice on the other end of the phone line was soft and polite and set to die Nov. 15.

"Is Mr. Chandler there?" asked Pinellas-Pasco Circuit Judge Phillip J. Federico.

"How are you doing sir," said Oba Chandler, who is scheduled to be executed for the 1989 murders of a visiting Ohio woman and her two daughters.

Federico held a hearing Friday at which the state and defense wrestled one last time over Chandler's fate for the murders of Joan "Jo" Rogers, 36, and her teenage daughters, Michelle, 17, and Christe, 14. The judge deferred ruling until next week.

In 1989 Chandler lured the tourists onto his boat, bound and gagged them, likely sexually assaulted them, then tied masonry blocks to their necks and tossed their bodies into Tampa Bay. The bodies were found drifting in different locations, suggesting the victims watched each other die.

Chandler was arrested three years later, then convicted and sentenced to die in 1994. But it wasn't until Oct. 10 that Gov. Rick Scott signed his death warrant, starting the clock on Chandler's final appeal.

Now 65, Chandler has exhausted every other legal appeal in the 17 years since his conviction. He rarely leaves his cell on Florida's death row these days and chose not to travel to Pinellas County for the hearing, said his defense attorney, Baya Harrison III.

So the defense requested that Chandler be allowed to participate by phone from his cell at Florida State Prison in Raiford.

"I hear fine, thank you," Chandler said over the speaker phone.

The defense contends Chandler's constitutional rights were violated because some of the findings made by a judge in sentencing him to death should have been made by a jury instead. The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled in the past that juries, not judges, should have the power to hand out death sentences. This summer a federal judge in Miami declared Florida's death penalty statute unconstitutional for that very reason, which Harrison said opened the door for his last-ditch appeal.

The jury in the 1994 trial voted 12-0 to convict Chandler. But Harrison argued that during the penalty phase it was Judge Susan Schaeffer, now retired, who made the factual findings that Chandler should be executed.

"He was not given a fully jury trial," Harrison argued Friday. "He was given half a trial. In all of those (federal) cases those courts make it absolutely clear that Florida has lost its way in terms of recognizing what the right to a jury trial means."

The Florida Attorney General's office wrote that the defense motion was "procedurally barred, facially insufficient and unauthorized" under the rules of criminal procedure.

Assistant Attorney General Candance Sabella, the chief of capital appeals, added a new reason Friday: it's too late.

"He has had 10 years to raise this claim," she said. "If he thought there was merit to this, he has had substantial time to raise this claim."

Federico said he would issue a written ruling as soon as Monday. Then he adjourned the hearing.

"Yeah, thank you," Chandler said over the phone.

Set to die Nov. 15, Oba Chandler listens by phone as lawyers argue his fate 10/21/11 [Last modified: Friday, October 21, 2011 2:54pm]
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