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Thursday, November 30, 2023

The aftermath of a serial killer’s trial

In 1994, Verlinda McDaniel sat in a courtroom.

As juror No. 2 in the trial deciding if Danny Rolling would receive the death penalty for five murders in 1990, she had to keep a strong face, she said.

"I don’t think I’ve ever felt so angry in my life," she said. "My heart just went out to the family."

She and 11 other jurors eventually recommended the death penalty, a decision she feels was the right one. However, the emotional decision still had a flaw.

"No matter what the decision was," McDaniel said, "we couldn’t bring them back."

The sentence would be fulfilled Oct. 25, 2006.

Drew Harwell was 19 when he reported on Rolling’s execution for the Alligator.

"Danny Rolling in the pictures looked like such an old, frail guy," Harwell, now 28, said. "He didn’t look like the monster who had haunted the city for so long. He just looked like this pathetic old guy."

Outside the prison, Harwell remembers, was a media frenzy.

"There were just really emotional people on both sides," he said, adding that supporters and opponents of the death penalty joined those who remembered the 1990 murders.

Chris Tisch, now an editor at the Tampa Bay Times, described the scene outside the prison as "a bit of a carnival atmosphere" because of all the media. But inside, everything was quiet.

"It’s a peculiar space," Tisch said. "Everyone just kind of sits and watches a person die."

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He described it as the oddest execution he has ever witnessed, due to a self-composed country song Rolling sang instead of choosing final words.

"He who flung the stars into heavens above, created the oceans, mountains, eagles and doves," he sang, Tisch said. "None greater than thee, Oh Lord, none greater than thee."

The microphone was cut off after two minutes, and soon what Tisch called "the lethal cocktail" began to flow into his arm.

At 6:13 p.m., the man who terrorized Gainesville was pronounced dead.

For the Alligator writers, their final coverage of Rolling left a lasting impression.

"It sort of pulls you out of that bubble of being young and vulnerable," Harwell, now a writer at the Washington Post, said. "It reminds you how important it is to be appreciating life every day because something like that is so random and cruel."

Dominick Tao, another writer who now serves in the U.S. Army, said he still remembers looking through the pictures of the crime scenes.

"I’ve been to war," he said. "I’ve been to Afghanistan, and nothing I’ve seen could top that tragedy and inhumanity perpetrated by that psychopath."

Years later, he refuses to say Rolling’s name.

Contact Emily Cochrane at and follow her on Twitter @ESCochrane

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