TALLAHASSEE — Three decades have passed since Mark Ober convinced a jury in Tampa that Charles Norman committed first-degree murder.
The veteran state attorney is still fighting to keep Norman locked up and worries the convict may be out to get him. But others — including a former state senator and a late syndicated columnist — insist Norman has been rehabilitated and deserves parole after 33 years behind bars.
Ober says he worries that Norman might seek revenge on him if he's set free, citing a report by state law enforcement agents, who spoke to Norman's former cellmate.
"I truly believe he's a danger to society," Ober said. "The Parole Commission should not take a chance."
Norman, 62, was convicted in 1980 of the shooting death of security guard Steven Bluffstone, 20, during the robbery of a Pantry Pride supermarket on Gandy Boulevard in Tampa in 1975. Ober was the prosecutor.
Sentenced to life with a minimum mandatory 25-year term, the former Tampa police officer is now at Wakulla State Prison annex south of Tallahassee. Florida abolished parole in 1983 when it imposed sentencing guidelines. But inmates sentenced before 1983 are still eligible for parole, and Norman is one of about 6,000 who qualify.
The Parole Commission on Wednesday postponed action on Norman's parole bid until Nov. 9. At the hearing, Ober cited statements that a former cellmate of Norman's, Gregg Quilling, made to him and repeated to two agents of the Florida Department of Law Enforcement.
In a December 2009 report, agents Ryan Bailey and Brett Thompson quoted Quilling, who shared a cell with Norman, as saying Norman "hates Ober with a passion," that Norman knew Ober lives in a waterfront home in Tampa, and that he could "take Ober out" as a sniper if he were released.
The FDLE report noted that at the time, Quilling was trying to get his sentence shortened.
Norman's attorney, William Sheppard, objected to the statements being put in the record as part of Norman's parole application.
"It is double hearsay. It's unreliable. It's a total denial of due process," Sheppard said of the cellmate's statements. "This is not fair."
Ober, 60, voiced disapproval with the Parole Commission when interim board member Charles Scriven said he had not been given Quilling's statement to read beforehand.
Ober said he delivered the statement two months ago.
The three-member parole board currently has one vacancy and the state pays fill-in members $100 a day to serve.
A writer and sculptor behind bars, Norman has been accepted by the Prisoners of Christ program in Jacksonville upon his release, his lawyer said.
"Everything he has done indicates positive, full rehabilitation," Sheppard told parole officials.
Jack Murphy of Crystal River, who served time with Norman, cited the convict's work with a prison ministry and re-entry programs for inmates, including a self-help initiative.
"People say, 'We're afraid of that guy,' but he's not going back to Hillsborough," Murphy told the parole board. "Charlie Norman is a safe, safe prospect for consideration."
Former state Sen. John Grant of Tampa has backed Norman's release for more than a decade. In 2000, Grant wrote a letter to the governor's office that said: "Charlie has a lot to contribute to the community and I hope that he will have the opportunity to do so while he has many strong years left. … I feel he is a good man."
The late syndicated columnist James J. Kilpatrick, who specialized in writing about legal affairs, took up Norman's cause after the two men exchanged 100 letters.
Kilpatrick told the Parole Commission in 2001 that he felt Norman had been wrongly convicted by perjured testimony of witnesses, and that Norman is no longer a threat to society.
A leading conservative voice for five decades, Kilpatrick died last year. "The trial (of Norman) was a travesty," he wrote in a 1998 column.
Complicating Norman's parole bid is that last year, he was cited for violating the Department of Corrections' mail policies and given 30 days in solitary confinement. Prison officials discovered Norman won an award from the Tampa Writers Alliance and that a website, Free Charlie Norman Now! (charlienorman.blogspot.com), sought donations in a violation of prison rules, which also prevent inmates from entering contests.
Times researcher Shirl Kennedy contributed to this report. Steve Bousquet can be reached at [email protected] or (850) 224-7263.