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"Stop sign' case defendant freed

His conviction tossed, the man had remained in jail on unrelated charges.

Thomas Miller finally got to wear his new clothes.

Miller, one of three defendants awaiting another trial in the nationally known "stop sign" case, was released on $30,000 bail Monday after pleading guilty to unrelated drunken driving and drug charges.

"We will walk out with a big smile on our face," said Miller's attorney, Joe Episcopo.

Miller left the Orient Road Jail at 6:14 p.m. and hugged his attorney. He thanked Episcopo and apologized for getting into trouble, Episcopo said.

Miller had been in jail since Oct. 28, 1999, when a sheriff's deputy pulled him over on State Road 60 for speeding and running a red light. The deputy smelled alcohol on Miller's breath and took him to the county jail, where he dropped a bag containing tablets of the drug Ecstasy.

Circuit Judge Rex Barbas sentenced Miller to 544 days in the county jail.

"I think 18 months in the county jail has straightened him out," said Miller's mother, Jenny, who brought a new outfit to court for his son to wear. "He came in an immature boy. He will come out a man."

Before his arrest in 1999, Miller had been out on bail while the 2nd District Court of Appeal reviewed his conviction in the so-called "stop sign" case.

Miller, Nissa Baillie, now 25, and Christopher Cole, now 24, had each been sentenced to 15 years in prison in 1997 after being convicted of manslaughter for causing the deaths of three teenagers. A jury found that the three pulled up a stop sign at an intersection in south Hillsborough County, causing a fatal car crash.

All three defendants acknowledged stealing signs in rural Hillsborough, but they denied stealing the stop sign that was down on Feb. 7, 1996, at Lithia-Pinecrest and Keysville roads, where three teenagers in a Camaro collided with an 8-ton Mack truck.

One of the key prosecution witnesses was Larry Jarrard, who said he thought one of the defendants told him they had been out stealing signs the night before the crash. The defendants said they had stolen signs days or weeks before the crash. After the trial, Jarrard recanted his testimony, saying that prosecutor Leland Baldwin had threatened to "burn his a--" if he didn't testify as she wanted.

This month, the 2nd District Court of Appeal overturned the conviction and ordered a new trial. In its opinion, the appeals court did not evaluate the accusation against Baldwin, but the court did find that Baldwin mischaracterized Jarrard's testimony in her closing arguments to the jury.

New State Attorney Mark Ober must decide whether prosecutors have enough evidence to bring the defendants to trial again. No decision has been made yet.

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