Rolling, seeking life term,says, 'I am not a monster'
Ten years ago, Danny Rolling killed five college students. Now he's saying his lawyers were incompetent and he shouldn't be executed.
[AP photo]Rolling ponders his future in court Tuesday.
By BARRY KLEIN
© St. Petersburg Times, published July 12, 2000
GAINESVILLE -- Ann Garren greatly resents that Danny Rolling already has lived a decade longer than her daughter, one of five students he murdered and mutilated in a killing rampage that terrorized this college town in 1990.
That's why she was back here Tuesday, forcing herself to listen as the confessed killer swore in court that he is "not a monster."
"He is a monster," said an angry Garren, who thinks Rolling should die -- and soon -- despite his latest appeal, in which he claims he was sentenced to death because of incompetent counsel.
As evidence, Rolling is citing his attorneys' unwillingness to move the case from Gainesville. He hopes to gain a new sentencing hearing and a shot at a life sentence.
The dozen relatives of his victims who sat through Tuesday's session are confident that won't happen. But they are worried about the growing national debate over the fairness of capital punishment, which they fear could allow Rolling to cheat the executioner.
"That would be just horrendous," said Ada Larson, the mother of Sonja Larson, one of Rolling's first victims.
Next month will mark 10 years since Rolling, 46, used a Marine Corps K-Bar knife to mark his spot among America's most notorious killers.
His murderous frenzy lasted for four nights.
He tied up his female victims with duct tape before stabbing them to death. He raped three of them and decapitated one. The others he posed in lewd positions.
Rolling has never explained why.
The crimes terrified Gainesville. Some students withdrew from school. Some of those who returned came back armed.
Hundreds of local, state and federal law enforcement officers invaded the town, as did almost as many reporters and television cameras.
Rolling eventually confessed and pleaded guilty on the day his trial was to start in 1994. A jury was seated for the sentencing phase and unanimously recommended death.
Now Rolling is in court arguing that the notoriety he created with his crimes entitles him to a new sentencing.
Rolling claims that his attorneys at the time, the Alachua County public defender and his chief assistant, should never have talked him into keeping the trial in Gainesville.
There was too much pretrial publicity, all of it highly unfavorable to Rolling, argues Baya Harrison, the Monticello lawyer specially appointed by the state to represent Rolling.
He said that decision alone constitutes proof of inadequate representation.
"Of all the places on the planet, Gainesville was not the proper venue for a thousand reasons," Harrison said.
Rolling testified Tuesday that his attorneys told him Gainesville was a good place for the trial since it was a liberal college town. He said they told him it was his best chance for an unbiased jury.
"I didn't feel comfortable about having the trial here," said Rolling, who admitted having a hazy memory of the two-hour conversation with his attorneys.
"The people of Gainesville had been badly wronged," he said. "They looked at me from the viewpoint that I was a monster. I am not a monster."
Rod Smith strongly disagrees. He was Gainesville's new state attorney when the murders happened. He said the evidence alone was enough to put him in a prolonged depression.
He is still the state attorney but now he is in the position of having to defend the work of the lawyers he beat six years ago.
He said it isn't a problem.
Before being sentenced to death, Rolling pleaded guilty to five murders, three sexual batteries and three armed robberies, Smith said.
"They are saying if their strategy had been different, the outcome would have been different," he said. "Where? On the moon?"
Garren, the mother of Christa Hoyt, one of Rolling's victims, said the relatives never cared where the trial was held. "We just wanted the death penalty."
The hearing is expected to continue until at least Saturday. Circuit Judge Stan Morris, who presided over the sentencing six years ago, has not said when he will rule.
His decision will be critical for Rolling, who already has had two pleas for a new trial turned down by the Florida Supreme Court.
He is beginning to run out of time.
Prisoners sentenced to death in Florida spend an average of 11.3 years on death row. Rolling has been there six years.
Officials have said his first death warrant could be signed as early as next year.
While several of the victims' relatives said Tuesday that a day rarely passes when they don't think about what Rolling did, his legacy in Gainesville began fading long ago.
There hasn't been a memorial ceremony for the victims for five years. The only visual reminders are five trees planted near the University of Florida library, a plaque in a local park and a single panel on a stretch of wall along SW 34th Street, a shrine of sorts that was dedicated to the victims' memories days after the murders.
It says simply, "We remember," along with their names: "Sonja Larson, Christina Powell, Christa Leigh Hoyt, Tracy Paules, Manuel Taboada."
College towns are transitory places, one of the features that attracted Rolling here in the first place. Most of today's students were young children when the murders happened.
To them, Rolling is just a name.
"The only thing I remember is that my parents wouldn't let me stay home alone," said Maggie Little, a 19-year-old psychology major who grew up in Gainesville.
Scott Paules knows just how big a deal it was. He is the brother of Tracy Paules, one of Rolling's final victims.
Scott said Tuesday was the first time he saw Rolling in person. He said he felt little emotion.
"I don't spend time thinking of what I want to do to him," he said. "I spend time thinking about my family -- my mom, my dad, and especially my sister."
- Times correspondent Beth Kassab contributed to this report.