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Cold, grisly details unfold in penalty phase

Tracy Paules ran for her bedroom. The intruder came after her, kicking in her door.

There he stood, Danny Harold Rolling, dressed in Ninja black and a ski mask, armed with a combat knife for quick, efficient killing, possessed, he would say, by demons and rage.

Rolling's clothes were wet with the blood of Paules' roommate, Manuel Taboada, who lay down the hall, his life ebbing from some 30 stab wounds. Hours earlier, in a phone conversation with a friend, Paules had worried about the killer roaming this college town.

Now Paules faced Rolling with nothing more than a curling iron for protection.

"You're the one, aren't you?" she asked.

"Yeah," Rolling said. "I'm the one."

With that, he went to work: He taped her hands. He taped her mouth. He taped the window drapes closed. He cut off her nightshirt and, for a long while, he toyed with her. Then he raped her anally. Then he stabbed her in the back. Again and again and again.

She took a long time to die.

As Alachua State Attorney Rod Smith described the horror of Paules' death to jurors on the opening day of Rolling's sentencing phase, Rolling sat stone still, his hands neatly folded on the defense table, face set, eyes averted from the jury box. He remained that way for much of Smith's opening argument Monday, even as Smith's voice rose with anger as he described in wrenching detail the death and defilement of five college students in August 1990.

"You will have to return a death penalty recommendation," Smith told the jury of nine women and three men.

"You will do it because that's what the law requires."

In demanding the death penalty for Rolling, Smith returned again and again to the "hows" of the crimes, taken from Rolling's confession and evidence at the scenes.

How Rolling paused to eat an apple and a banana after stabbing 17-year-old Christina Powell. How Rolling posed Christa Hoyt's nude, headless corpse sitting up on her water bed.

It was left to Rolling's defense attorneys to answer the "whys."

Johnny Kearns, Rolling's public defender, never mentioned the victims by name during his opening argument.

The purpose of the sentencing phase is to determine whether Rolling should be put to death in Florida's electric chair or sentenced to life in prison without possibility of parole for 25 years. The jury makes a recommendation; Circuit Judge Stan R. Morris makes the decision. They must balance aggravating factors, such as Rolling's extensive criminal history, against mitigating factors, such as mental illness.

Smith told jurors he viewed it as a "great privilege" to argue for the death penalty against a man who would later brag about the crimes to other inmates and who had racked up 12 violent felonies in five states, not counting the Gainesville slayings.

Smith said Rolling used his criminal experience to coldly and carefully plan his rampage, assembling his tools for murder in three different cities.

The first step, Smith said, came more than a month before the murders, when Rolling purchased a $34 Marine Corps Ka-Bar knife at an Army-Navy store in Tallahassee. Rolling would later tell a fellow inmate that he selected that type of knife because "it cuts right through flesh and bone," Smith said.

In Sarasota, he bought a 9mm handgun. Back in Gainesville, he stole a screwdriver, duct tape and two pairs of athletic gloves.

Then he made final preparations. He tape-recorded a message to his family, including a farewell to his mother and father and tips to his brother on how to kill and gut a deer.

He ended the recording with this line: "I've got something I gotta do."

With that line, Smith said, Rolling "commenced the slaughter."

"He wasn't dressed up like you see him now," Smith said, pointing contemptuously at Rolling, dressed for court in a blue jacket and tie. That night, Smith said, Rolling wore black _ "dark clothing on a dark night for a dark purpose."

Using his screwdriver, he forced his way into the apartment of Sonja Larson and Powell, who were sleeping. He would kill Powell first, then rape Larson. As he plunged his knife into Powell, he forced tape over her mouth. "He watched her as she died, her mouth taped over, her cries muffled," Smith said.

He returned to Larson downstairs and bound her hands with tape. As would be his pattern, Rolling told Larson what he was going to do to her. Rolling was unmoved when Larson cried out in pain as he raped her.

"Take the pain, b----," he told her. "Take the pain."

He finished her off with five stabs in the back. He took a break to snack on a banana and an apple from their refrigerator, then he posed their bodies.

Rolling showed the same unhurried calm after raping and stabbing Christa Hoyt. After he got back to his campsite, Rolling realized he was missing his wallet. So he returned to Hoyt's apartment to look for it. He didn't find it. So he called 911 to report the loss.

As graphic as Smith's account of the deaths was, he carefully avoided telling jurors about some of Rolling's most gruesome acts, including mutilation of the bodies.

Smith skipped these facts to avoid problems on appeal. Since the mutilations occurred after death, he explained to reporters, there are restrictions on their use as aggravating factors. Of course, he pointed out, the jurors will be shown crime scene photographs.

"You will get to see how he left Christa Hoyt," Smith told jurors pointedly.

To all of this, Rolling's attorney, Kearns, reminded jurors that no one is asking for a lenient sentence. He urged jurors to put Rolling in a cell, lock the door, throw away the key and let "the Almighty" decide on the moment of his death, not the state of Florida. He called the murders "acts of rage" brought about by a tormented childhood and mental illnesses.

From the moment of Rolling's conception, Kearns said, his father showed unexplained anger toward him. While Rolling's mother was pregnant, her husband beat her and once knocked her down the stairs.

The elder Rolling, a police officer, would beat Rolling with his police belt, Kearns said.

The final confrontation came in May 1990 when Rolling shot his father in the face during an argument. Months later, he would come to Gainesville.

"In Gainesville," Kearns said, "he fulfills the expectations set for him by his father at birth."