ST. PETERSBURG — Everybody knew the smartest lawyer in the courtroom was the one on the bench.
In her 22 years on the Pinellas-Pasco Circuit Court and six years as chief judge, Susan F. Schaeffer commanded a tight courtroom. No nonsense. Every attorney was held to the same high standard.
A finalist for the Florida Supreme Court, known nationwide as an expert on the death penalty, Judge Schaeffer presided over several high-profile cases and garnered the respect of Tampa Bay's judicial leaders.
In January, she learned that her lung cancer had returned and spread to her spine. On Tuesday, she died in hospice care in the company of her stepson, Andrew, and partner of 35 years, Sue Rudd.
She was 73.
One of her highest profile cases came in 1994, when she presided over the trial and sentencing of Oba Chandler, who in 1989 raped and murdered an Ohio tourist and her two teenage daughters. Their bodies were found in Tampa Bay, tied to concrete blocks.
Judge Schaeffer sentenced Chandler to death, and he was executed by lethal injection in 2011. She would later describe him as "probably the vilest, most evil defendant I ever handled."
"You knew that whatever ruling she made, it was going to be the right one, whether you liked it or not," said St. Petersburg attorney Fred Zinober, who defended Chandler. "She was the best of the best."
Known to her colleagues as "Ms. Death," Judge Schaeffer sent many criminals to death row, including serial killer James Randall and two Miami hit men convicted of the contract killing of Dr. Louis Davidson.
She studied death cases with a passion, writing a textbook that became required reading for Florida judges and helped them avoid the errors that drag out appeals for decades.
In her heart, though, she opposed execution.
"Our system is not perfect," she told the Times in 1997. "There is no doubt in my mind that an innocent person will be executed. In my way of thinking, one is unacceptable."
A small-town girl from Pennsylvania, Susan Fay Schaeffer moved to the Haines Road area of St. Petersburg in the ninth grade. Her family went to the First Church of God whenever the doors were open.
After graduating from Northeast High School, she majored in music at St. Petersburg Junior College, played piano and organ and sang gospel tunes.
For a while, she saw herself as a composer, but instead chose the field of accounting and became an IRS agent. Law textbooks on tax code captivated her, leading her straight to Stetson University College of Law in Gulfport.
She graduated at the top of her 1971 class, one of just three female students.
In 1974, she launched a private practice in St. Petersburg. She later went to work for Public Defender Robert Jagger, trying three to five jury trials a week. In three years, she took hundreds of cases to trial and became Jagger's chief assistant — the first woman to do so, in a time when Rudd said judges still called women "honey" and "babe."
"She was not accepted in the man's world, but she kept working," said Rudd, 74, also her longtime judicial assistant. "She built a reputation, and they couldn't deny that she was a force to be reckoned with."
Then came the appointment to the bench by Gov. Bob Graham, bringing to an end a local tradition of county judges getting all the circuit seats.
"It was like she had been there 20 years," Rudd said. "There was never any doubt, she was cut out for it."
After three years in civil court, Judge Schaeffer moved to criminal court. In 1995, her fellow judges elected her chief judge of the 6th Judicial Circuit.
Despite her qualms about the death penalty, Judge Schaeffer devoted herself to the letter of the law. Zinober remembers her reading of Chandler's sentencing orders as among the most emotional moments he has ever witnessed in a courtroom.
"Her passion in her pronouncement, and the thought that she put into that sentencing effort was just unmatched," Zinober said. "She put the law together as only she knew it."
Judge Schaeffer often took attorneys aside to offer criticism and answered countless calls seeking her expertise. Chief Judge Anthony Rondolino called her a mesmerizing lawyer and a commanding presence.
"She was clearly the smartest person in the courtroom whenever she took the bench," he said.
In the 1999 trial of Rev. Henry J. Lyons, a St. Petersburg minister and national Baptist leader who would ultimately be convicted of racketeering and grand theft, Judge Schaeffer warned the courtroom that this would not be reminiscent of the bungled 1995 O.J. Simpson trial.
"She said to everybody, 'I'm going to tell you one thing: I'm no (Judge) Lance Ito,' " said Denis deVlaming, a longtime Pinellas criminal defense lawyer. "And boy, she wasn't. She ran a tight courtroom."
Both prosecutors and defense attorneys characterized Judge Schaeffer as firm but fair.
"She didn't put up with nonsense," said Pinellas-Pasco Public Defender Bob Dillinger. "The people who knew her knew she was not going to follow her own opinion, she was going to follow the law."
Pinellas-Pasco State Attorney Bernie McCabe faced off against her many times when she was an assistant public defender. He later tried cases in front of her.
"She was the best lawyer I ever faced," McCabe said. "Absolutely the best. We had some real knock down, drag out trials but we always came out of it friends. And she was the best judge I ever had."
In 1997, she was one of five finalists for the Florida Supreme Court. Only Judge Schaeffer was a trial judge. Gov. Lawton Chiles ultimately selected an appellate judge.
In 2004, she led the state Supreme Court's Trial Court Budget Commission, which worked to educate the Legislature on funding the state court system and providing for new judges, masters, case managers and court administrators.
That same year, Judge Schaeffer, a heavy smoker, was diagnosed with lung cancer and retired. Rudd said Judge Schaeffer had "12 wonderful years of retirement," playing golf, playing piano, making stained glass and relaxing in the North Carolina mountains. Last June, they were married by Judge Rondolino.
Even in retirement, though, Judge Schaeffer enjoyed sharing stories about her career, Rudd said. Her innate drive to excel never dimmed.
"I always felt like she was defined by her profession," Rudd said. "I think it was everything to her."
Times senior news researcher John Martin contributed to this report, which includes information from Times files. Contact Claire McNeill at [email protected] or (727) 893-8321.