Danny Rolling, the Gainesville Ripper
A Plea of 'Guilty'
In the courtroom on February 15 there were very few members of the public or the media. The families of the victims were all present but no one from Rolling's family was there; his mother, suffering from cancer, was too ill to attend. The only person present to support him was his fiancée, Sondra London. None were expecting this stage of the proceedings to be of any great moment and the court settled in quickly. Rolling's announcement that he would be pleading guilty was received with shocked silence in the courtroom, while outside the reaction was explosive as the media converged upon the courthouse to get the latest word as the courtroom emptied. Danny Rolling had taken sole responsibility for the murders of the five young students, all that needed to be determined by the jury, that was finally selected nine days later, was whether he would receive the death penalty or not.
It was the responsibility of the jury to weigh in the balance the aggravating factors presented by the prosecution and the mitigating circumstances presented by the defense. According to Florida law there were 11 possible aggravating circumstances, at least one of these needed to be proved by the prosecution for the jury to determine that the death penalty was warranted. The defense had no restrictions on what evidence it could use as mitigating factors, its success would be determined by whether the jury believed that they were strong enough circumstances to outweigh the prosecution's case. Only seven of the twelve jurors needed to be in agreement to make a recommendation to the court and it was then up to the judge whether or not he would accept it.
Opening arguments began on Tuesday March 7, 1994. The prosecution claimed that it would be successful in proving 5 of the 11 possible aggravating circumstances laid down by the law:
- The crimes were cold-blooded and premeditated
- The crimes were committed during sexual battery
- The crimes were particularly heinous, atrocious and cruel
- The offender had a prior history of felony convictions
- The crimes were committed for the purpose of escaping detection or avoiding arrests, particularly in the cases of Sonya Larson and Manuel Taboada.
The defense would attempt to prove the following mitigating circumstances:
- The perpetrator suffered mental illness at the time of the crimes
- The crimes were committed under extreme stress
- The perpetrator grew up in an abusive household
- There was a history of drug and alcohol abuse
- The perpetrator showed remorse.