Richard Earl Shere Jr. has argued one decision for half his life.
More specifically, attorneys have argued it for him — until Thursday afternoon.
His wrists and ankles shackled, Shere shuffled into a Hernando County courtroom holding a white bag filled with files and yellow pads covered in hand-written legal notes.
As a photographer snapped photos of him, the death row inmate smiled into the camera.
Shere, wearing thick-lensed glasses with brown frames, nodded to three friends sitting in the first row and to his father and stepmother sitting just behind them.
Circuit Judge Stephen Rushing had presided over a long day of pretrial hearings for accused burglars, thieves and oxycodone dealers. Now, before him at the defense table was a 44-year-old man who hadn't known freedom since the first year he was old enough to legally drink.
For more than three years, the one-time Ridge Manor resident had studied and prepared for the moment. Shere, whose formal education ended in sixth grade, had read dozens of legal books. He'd written a series of documents 344 pages long, detailing his objections to his sentence.
"It's amazing how much his reading and writing has improved," Shere's friend and mentor, Rick Oblinger, said after the hearing. "He's worked night and day on this."
Shere was about to argue before the judge that he shouldn't die for the murder of Drew Paul Snyder, shot 10 times in the head, chest, back, arm and leg 24 years ago.
Another man, Bruce Demo, was also convicted of murdering Snyder; Demo, however, received life in prison.
Dressed in a red jumpsuit, white socks and orange slippers, Shere chatted and laughed before the hearing with the man sitting next to him, Frank Bankowitz, an Orlando attorney acting only as Shere's standby representative.
Assistant State Attorney Anthony Tatti flipped through papers at the prosecutor's table a few feet away. It was a familiar place for both the attorney and the convicted killer. In 1989, Tatti convinced a jury of seven women and five men that Shere had committed first-degree murder on Christmas Day 1987 and that he deserved to be executed for his crime.
The enormous amount of paperwork Shere has filed on his own behalf in recent years initiated Thursday's hearing. Rather than deciphering and responding in writing to Shere's latest motion, which exceeded the 50-page limit Rushing placed upon it, Tatti requested that Shere be given "his day in court" so that he could personally make his case to the judge.
"I could not, despite my best efforts, glean from these pleadings any identifiable legal theory that I recognized," Tatti told the judge before Shere spoke. "At the end of the day, my hope is that we identify and crystallize some legal issue, but I suspect we're never going to get there."
Still, Rushing allowed Shere the opportunity to make his case.
Shere outlined seven claims, each of which he said compromised his conviction and sentence. Citing several cases to support his points, he attacked a range of issues, from the lack of the word "charge" in his 1988 grand jury indictment to the specific legal theory the State Attorney's Office used to prosecute him.
Tatti, who at times rubbed his forehead and shook his head as Shere spoke, presented a host of rebuttals to the defendant's claims. He called the arguments "nonsense" and said a lawyer, if Shere had one, would have pointed out to him the bevy of fundamental legal errors contained in his motion.
At no point did Shere become emotional. He was articulate and spoke in a deep, measured tone with a slight Southern accent.
Near the hearing's conclusion, Rushing asked him if he wished to say anything else.
"No," Shere said, "I believe that covers it."
The judge, before saying he would consider the arguments from both sides in the coming weeks, commended Shere for his efforts.
"I know you're not an attorney," Rushing said, "but you handled yourself very well, and I appreciate that."
Standing outside the courtroom after the hearing with Shere's stepmother, Sylvia, his father said he was proud of his boy.
"I thought my son was well prepared," Richard Earl Shere Sr. said. "I'm hoping he'll either get a new trial or the state will offer him second-degree murder with time served."
Oblinger, a former Tampa resident and teacher of 28 years in Michigan, has known Shere since the mid 1990s. After his wife died of cancer, Oblinger became pen pals with Shere and would bring the convict's son and late mother to visit him in prison.
Now, the 75-year-old Oblinger lives in Starke so he can visit the man he considers a son every Sunday at nearby Florida State Prison in Raiford.
"I told him the very first day I'm going to be here as long as it takes," Oblinger remembered telling Shere. "He never was like he's pictured by the state."
Depending on Rushing's decision, Thursday's hearing could be among the last in a long line that have followed Shere's trial.
Twice in the last 20 years, the Florida Supreme Court has considered his case. Twice, the state's highest judicial body has rejected his appeal.
The story started on Christmas Day in 1987, when Shere, Snyder and Demo picked up a case of beer and drove to eastern Hernando County on a rabbit hunt.
People who knew the three men called them friends. They drank together, hunted together and raised hell together. Shere called Demo "Brewster"; Snyder and Shere had even been accused of teaming up to burglarize a Brooksville home.
They hit one rabbit and missed a few others that winter day. That was before Snyder was shot to death on a remote dirt road and before his body was buried in a shallow grave.
Shere told authorities it was Demo's plan. Demo, he said, insisted Snyder had to die because he had told police about Shere's involvement in an armed burglary and Demo's role in an unrelated burglary.
After a two-hour hunt through the Ridge Manor area in Shere's car, the three men pulled over to relieve themselves.
"I set the rifle on the roof with the barrel sort of pointing at the trunk," Shere told investigators in 1988. "Then I heard Drew say, 'It's my turn to shoot a rabbit,' then I heard them arguing and I heard the gun go off and then I heard Drew say, 'Oh my God, Brewster,' or something like that."
After five or six shots, Shere said, he saw Demo fire another round into Snyder's forehead. Shere pulled his wounded friend out of the car and onto the ground, he said, where Demo delivered the fatal shot.
Demo, Shere claimed, fired every round and forced him to bury the body.
Shere's girlfriend and another man who knew him contradicted his claim. They each testified he had confessed to participating in Snyder's murder.
Demo also told a far different tale from Shere.
He told authorities Shere planned the killing from the start. Demo said he had no choice; Shere made him do it.
"I was following his instructions, and he said, 'No, you shoot him,' " Demo told jurors of Shere. "He said, 'Either you blow his head off or I'll blow your head off.' I did it you guys. I did it, but it was the only way out."
After Shere fired several rifle rounds, Demo claimed to have shot Snyder three times in the head and chest — because Shere forced him, he told authorities, and to end his friend's suffering.
Shere and Demo were tried in separate trials.
One jury found Demo guilty of second-degree murder. He was sentenced to life in prison.
Another jury found Shere guilty of first-degree murder and recommended he be sent to the electric chair. The judge honored the decision, and, since 1989, Shere has sat on death row.
A collection of attorneys appealed the ruling for a variety of reasons. In 1991, the Florida Supreme Court rejected a challenge that said Shere's statement should not have been admitted because detectives forced it from him. They also claimed his girlfriend's testimony should not have been admitted.
The court rejected both claims.
A new set of attorneys appealed the death sentence again around 2000, stating it was unfair because Demo had been given only life in prison. Shere's attorneys argued that his prior legal representatives failed to raise the issue of disproportionate sentencing on appeal.
Eighteen months after the appeal was submitted, the high court again struck it down, although two justices disagreed with the majority opinion and said the attorneys who filed Shere's original appeal failed to properly represent him.
Now, his friends and family hope his own words will save his life.
"I don't know," said Sylvia Shere when asked what she believes will happen. "It's in the Lord's hands."
Information from Times files was used in this report. John Woodrow Cox can be reached at (352) 848-1432 or firstname.lastname@example.org.