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Judge Susan Schaeffer recalls Oba Chandler as a man with no soul

This week, retired Judge Susan Schaeffer was driving across Florida on a trip to Jacksonville when she found herself in familiar territory.

Her route took her near Florida State Prison in Starke, where death row inmates live and are executed. Years earlier, she had been there as a lawyer for a clemency hearing, only her client tried to kill himself and was flown to the best hospital nearby. The irony of a system eager to fix him in preparation for executing him was not lost on her.

Schaeffer drove along that day even as reporters, lawyers and loved ones prepared to gather at the prison, even as the man she sentenced 17 years ago to die for his truly horrific crimes lived out his last hours. Strange, she thought, I'm so close, I could just go down this road and I'd be right there. So did you? I asked.

"I had no interest," said Schaeffer, 69, having done her job long ago in the worst case she would ever handle.

She was an aggressive lawyer, then a respected Pinellas-Pasco chief judge. She handled big-name cases and made finalist for the state Supreme Court. And Oba Chandler was the most vile human being to ever meet her eye across a courtroom.

He could look so deceptively mild. In the summer of 1989, a wife and mother named Joan Rogers brought her two daughters here from the family farm in Ohio for a sunny Florida vacation, where they had the fatally bad luck to cross his path.

Schaeffer would write in her sentencing order of the horror those final moments must have held for Rogers and Christe and Michelle, alone at sea on the boat of a stranger who bound them, raped them, weighted them with concrete blocks and dropped them into the Gulf. They were probably alive. The jury had not taken long.

In death penalty cases, defense lawyers work to find anything good or even salvageable to convince a jury that this man should be allowed to live. Chandler? "There wasn't anything to say to save him," Schaeffer said this week. "It's the worst case as far as factually, and as far as a defendant without saving grace, that I ever handled. And I represented plenty of people who were not necessarily good people."

"He had nothing working for him," she said. "Absolutely nothing.

The jury, brought in from Orlando because the case was so incendiary, bonded with each other and with their judge over all they saw and heard in that courtroom. When it was done, the jurors gave her a small gavel with their names and the words "Thank you" on it.

In court, Chandler steadily met the judge's eye. When he was taken away, he said to her: See you in about six months. You're going to get reversed.

All right, she said back.

She was not reversed. The Florida Supreme Court found no error, no reason for retrial or resentencing. Still, 17 years passed before the Tuesday afternoon when he breathed his last.

Schaeffer calls it a "fairly broken system" that takes this long in a case "as bad as they get" with no mistakes in the trial. But she will also tell you she finds it distasteful that our civilized society employs the death penalty. Talking to Judge Schaeffer is rarely boring.

The day after the execution, I asked what she thought of the man who sat in her courtroom as the story played out. She took a second. "He did not have a soul, I don't think," the judge said. "Or if he did, it was a black one."

Judge Susan Schaeffer recalls Oba Chandler as a man with no soul 11/17/11 [Last modified: Thursday, November 17, 2011 8:24pm]
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