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Death for murderer Randall, jury says

Published Mar. 8, 1997|Updated Oct. 1, 2005

Dozens of people filled a Pinellas County courtroom Friday afternoon to hear whether a jury would recommend death or life for convicted killer James Randall.

One woman sat near the back, quiet and unobtrusive. She held her hands in her lap, clasping and unclasping them, as she stared at the man suspected of killing five women in two states.

Her name used to be Linda Randall. She was married to Randall for seven years. And her testimony against her ex-husband helped persuade the jury to recommend he be executed for strangling Clearwater prostitutes Wendy Evans and Cynthia Pugh.

Their vote: 12-0 for death on each count.

"It's a shame," said the former Mrs. Randall, gazing at the man she once loved _ and who repaid her by choking her, raping her and threatening to kill her. She added: "I do feel a lot safer."

She had not yet decided what to tell their children.

Ultimately, the decision on Randall's punishment rests with Chief Judge Susan Schaeffer, but the law requires that she give the jury's recommendation great weight. Schaeffer scheduled a hearing for further legal arguments March 21 and tentatively slated sentencing for April 4.

Monday, the jury of seven women and five men took six hours to decide Randall's guilt. Friday, they spent just 90 minutes debating whether he deserved life in prison or the electric chair.

Because the jurors spent so much time going over the case earlier in the week, the jurors needed only one vote to reach their unanimous recommendation on each count, foreman David Bernstein said.

"The evidence was compelling" for death, Bernstein said.

Hoping to persuade the jury to be lenient, defense attorneys Richard Watts and Michael Schwartzberg called several witnesses to show a softer side of the 42-year-old Palm Harbor window installer.

Randall's mother, Patricia, spoke of how fine a boy he had been. She told how he had once braved a snowstorm to search for the owner of a stray kitten.

"No matter what happens today I will always love Jim," she said. "He's my son. He's my heart."

But in a brief cross-examination by prosecutor Doug Crow, she admitted this was the first time she had seen her son in 10 years.

As she left the witness stand, she glanced at Randall. He winked, and she started crying. She did not stay for the rest of the hearing.

A psychiatrist called by the defense, Dr. Michael Maher, said Randall was ill with an incurable disease, sexual sadism, that he could not control.

"There is an obsession involved in thinking about rough, aggressive, hostile, sometimes lethal sex, primarily with women, and a compulsion to act out those fantasies," Maher said.

But the state called a psychologist, Dr. Sidney Merin, who said Randall could have controlled his compulsion. Crow painted a vivid picture of how Randall played out those sadistic fantasies with Evans, and later Pugh, at his Belcher Road apartment.

"It is a vicious, brutal, sustained assault," Crow said. "As the defendant strangled her, they were face to face, his eyes staring into hers, her eyes staring into his . . .

"Her terror grew, her anguish continued, more pain was endured," he said. "We do not know precisely how long she remained conscious _ 10 seconds, 20 seconds, a minute, face to face with your murderer, seeing him sexually aroused by your own terror."

Crow told jurors they could gain insight into Randall's mind through the 1986 rapes of his wife. The first time, she testified, Randall arrived home at 2 a.m., closed their bedroom window, demanded sex and began choking her.

"I kept pushing him away," she said, "and he kept telling me, "You better have sex with me 'cause no one's going to hear us.' "

The next morning she gathered the children and moved into a shelter. Two months later, he came looking for her again, stopping her on a highway and kidnapping her, along with the children.

She said Randall tied her up with her own shoelaces and choked her during two episodes of forced sex. He told the children, ages 2 and 5, that if they got out of the car he would kill their mother.

"I really thought he was going to kill me, I really did," she said.

She believes Randall strangled her best friend, Holly Cote, 12 years ago. But prosecutors were not allowed to tell the jury about Cote's slaying because Randall has not been charged in that case.

Instead of killing his wife, Randall freed her. She reported the rapes to police, sending Randall to a Massachusetts prison. When he was released on probation, he fled to Florida.

Investigators believe he strangled two other Clearwater prostitutes, Peggy Darnell and Ladonna Steller, but he has not been indicted for those slayings. Still, Darnell's mother and sister came to court Friday to see Randall for themselves.

"I wanted to be in the same room with him," said Darnell's mother, Anita Dillen. "I wanted him to look me in the eye. He wouldn't do it."

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