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Hal Rogers unsure if he will witness Oba Chandler execution

Time has calmed Hal Rogers. It has not healed him. ¶ The Ohio farmer no longer feels the need to watch the man who wiped out his family die. He doesn't talk anymore about seeing Oba Chandler strapped into the electric chair and flipping the switch himself. ¶ Instead, the 59-year-old Rogers thinks of those Chandler took from him: his wife, Joan, and their daughters, Michelle and Christe. ¶ The mother and her girls were on vacation when they met Chandler on June 1, 1989. He coaxed them onto his boat, bound them, sexually assaulted them, weighed them down and tossed them into the waters of Tampa Bay. ¶ Sometimes, Rogers thinks, at least they were together at the end. Then he imagines the unfathomable horror they must have felt. ¶ "Some days, that will make perfect sense," he said. "Other days it makes no sense." ¶ It has been 22 years, and this is how Rogers copes. He is open and philosophical and lost and withdrawn all at the same time.

"Some days you get insight into yourself and other days you just can't get it back," he said. "That's me. I don't know. Everybody's different. I don't wish for anybody to go through that. Nobody."

Most of the time, Rogers said he masks his true feelings with sharp, black humor. It's his "defense mechanism." He is often sarcastic and always blunt.

When told that Florida no longer uses the electric chair — Chandler, 65, will die by the needle on Nov. 15 — a surprised Rogers cursed.

"Son of a b----," he said. "I'll be doggone."

• • •

Gov. Rick Scott signed Chandler's death warrant on Monday. It is set to be Florida's second execution since Scott took office in January.

Scott told reporters on Tuesday that there was no specific reason he picked Chandler. The facts of the case, he said, spoke for themselves.

Joan "Jo" Rogers, 36, and daughters Michelle, 17, and Christe, 14, were found floating a few miles off the Pier on June 4, 1989. Three years later, after a long search, St. Petersburg police finally zeroed in on Chandler.

"(He) killed three women, so I looked through different cases, and it made sense to do that one," Scott said. "There's never one thing. It was the right case."

Attorney Baya Harrison III said his client has exhausted all his state and federal appeals.

"We're at the end," he said. "We have one more shot, but it's a long shot."

Next week, Harrison will ask a Pinellas-Pasco circuit judge to set aside the death sentence because a federal judge in Miami declared that Florida's death penalty statute is unconstitutional.

U.S. District Judge Jose E. Martinez ruled that Florida law runs counter to the U.S. Supreme Court's decisions. In this state, juries recommend death sentences but judges actually impose the death penalty. The nation's high court has ruled that juries alone should have that power.

But there are many issues to sort out, Harrison said. He isn't even sure Chandler will sign the appeal. He has given up fighting his fate, his lawyer said.

Several months ago, Chandler was given the chance to personally appeal for clemency.

"He wouldn't even come out of his cell," Harrison said.

• • •

When Chandler was convicted in 1994, he was defiant, unapologetic. He proclaimed his innocence and cursed his pursuers.

He sent letters to the St. Petersburg Times dotted with smiley faces. In a 1995 prison interview with a Times reporter, he revealed what his last words will be before his death: "Kiss my rosy red a--!"

And Chandler now?

"He's a broken man," Harrison said. "His health has deteriorated. He's resigned to his fate. He's stoic about it."

Chandler suffers from high-blood pressure and coronary artery disease and has problems with his kidneys and with arthritis, his lawyer said.

But some things have not changed. Chandler still has not accepted responsibility for his crimes, or expressed remorse. He avoids the issue entirely.

"He doesn't even discuss the issue of guilt," Harrison said. "But he's not saying he was wronged anymore. He's past that."

• • •

Hal Rogers no longer runs a dairy. He raises hogs and grows corn on his farm these days.

He remarried a decade ago. He decided he was tired of being alone. He put an ad in the paper. That's how he met Jolene.

She is a widow.

"I miss them all," he said. "That makes it rough on Jolene. How do you fight a dead person?

"But her first husband died too. She understands."

Rogers got the call from the governor's office around 6 p.m. Monday. The state keeps him in the loop, he said. He looked up Chandler online. The death row mug shot amused him.

"I'm looking at this picture of old Obie, and he just looks like a harmless old Charlie Brown, don't he?" Rogers said. "Look at that picture. He looks just like someone's grandpa."

Then Rogers thinks back to the trial. He is a student of the case.

Chandler testified that he was fishing alone the night of the murders when a gas leak disabled his boat. He said he fixed the leak with duct tape.

But then an expert witness, boat mechanic James Hensley, shattered Chandler's testimony.

"Never had much luck with any kind of tape around gasoline," Hensley told the jury in 1994. "The fuel itself dissolves the tape."

Rogers watched the testimony on closed-circuit TV in another room that day. He wishes he could have seen Chandler's face.

"He might have gotten away with it, to put it bluntly in my opinion," Rogers said. "He might have created reasonable doubt if he just shut up and took the stand and said he never done anything.

"Instead he shot himself in the foot as far as he could."

There is one bit of business left: the Nov. 15 execution. Rogers can attend it if he wishes. It is his right. He can sit in the death chamber and watch Chandler die, just like he always said he would.

But does he still want too?

"I ain't made up my mind yet," he said. "I personally doubt it. I don't need any closure, I don't think."

Then he added: "I might do it at the last minute."

Staff writers Rita Farlow, Katie Sanders and Michael C. Bender contributed to this report. Jamal Thalji can be reached at thalji@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8472.

Hal Rogers unsure if he will witness Oba Chandler execution 10/11/11 [Last modified: Wednesday, October 12, 2011 12:11am]

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