Thursday, October 26, 2006

Crowd was a study of contrasts

Sun staff writer

STARKE - The contrast between the two groups assembled in the field across from Florida State Prison couldn't have been greater.

On one side of a rope line, about 60 people cheered the execution of Gainesville serial killer Danny Rolling. A few people lit cigars at news of his death and waved signs, such as one reading "Finally . . . kill the killer."

On the other side, a slightly larger group prayed and sang hymns in opposition to the death penalty. Near a sign reading "We remember the victims . . . but not with more killing," some wept at word of the execution.

Perhaps none of those assembled embodied the split more than Jim and Matthew Niblack.

Jim, 54, of Gainesville said his 18-year-old son, Matthew, wanted to see the scene outside the execution, so they drove up together. Once they arrived, Jim joined the section of opponents and his son headed the other way.

"There should be no such thing as the death penalty if you don't do it for him," said Matthew, a Williston High School student.

His father said he believed executions drag the state down to the level of a murderer.

"You really doing the same that they've done," he said.The scene outside the prison recalled the 1989 execution of Ted Bundy, which drew a cheering crowd of more than 100 people and throngs of state and national reporters. In more recent executions, dozens of death penalty opponents have gathered but there have generally been just a few, if any, supporters.

Roy Brown, 55, of Tampa is the one regular among supporters. Brown's 7-year-old daughter was murdered, and the man convicted for the crime is on Death Row and now appealing his sentence.

"This is good for me - to see all these people come out here," he said. "If people don't come from Gainesville, they're some sorry dogs."Gainesville resident Bonnie Flassig has attended execution protests for years. She said the attention around Rolling's execution overshadowed the problems with some of the other 61 executions since the death penalty was reinstated in Florida.

"We like to think of Danny Rolling and Ted Bundy as the poster boys of why we need the death penalty," she said. "There are 61 others that I certainly wouldn't call the worst of the worst.

"While family members of Rolling's victims assembled inside the prison, some friends of those victims joined the crowds outside. Tonya Wilson, 34, of Newberry said she was supposed to be the roommate of victims Sonja Larson and Christina Powell during the semester they were killed.

"I'm so glad that this day is here," she said. "Finally we're going to get some kind of justice."Atlanta attorney Hal Carter, 56, said he once dated Julie Grissom, one of Rolling's victims in the Louisiana killings for which he was never prosecuted. Carter said he came to show that someone who was close to a victim could still oppose the death penalty.

"Whether it's by Danny Rolling or the state, it's murder," he said.

Before the execution, some family members were critical about the protesters and news media attention given to Rolling. Chealea Neckler, the 17-year-old niece of victim Christa Hoyt, said seeing protesters was the hardest part of the day.

"I feel like they don't know the story," she said. "They didn't live it."

Mario Taboada, the 45-year-old brother of victim Manuel Taboada, said he hoped the news media would focus on the victims rather than Rolling.

"I don't think he deserves this much attention," he said.He was also critical of an independent horror movie about the murders, "The Gainesville Ripper," which is now being filmed. Director Josh Townsend was in the crowd outside the prison, getting footage he said he will use at the end of the movie.

The former Gainesville resident said he changed the names of the victims and other details out of respect for the victims' families.

"That's the best we could do to be respectful and still tell the story," he said.

Other Gainesville residents who assembled outside the prison said they came to see the conclusion of a story that they experienced firsthand.

Retired University of Florida sports management professor Owen Holyoak, 73, sat in a lawn chair and listened to a radio headset for news about the execution. He said he remembered that students stopped attending his and other classes in fall 1990 because of the fear surrounding the murders. "It just had a profound effect on me when it happened," he said.

Sitting among the execution supporters, he said, "just seemed like the thing to do to try to get some closure."

Matthew Niblack said he was just a small child at the time of the killing, but wanted to attend the protests just the same. But he said his first visit to the field across from Florida State Prison will also be his last."I'm not coming to another one again," he said.

Nathan Crabbe can be reached at 338-3176 or

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