'We'd rather have died than to stay in that place for something we didn't do'

By SYDNEY P. FREEDBERG

© St. Petersburg Times, published July 4, 1999 

Off death row for 11 years, Earnest Lee Miller, the tall and quiet one, and William Riley Jent, his short and happy-go-lucky half-brother, have taken different paths to build something from the ashes. 

Miller, 43, is a roofer in his native Dayton, Ohio. He embraces the past, sharing his eight-year ordeal with new neighbors and new family. 

Jent, 48, a ranch owner in Arizona, keeps it hidden. He lives incognito, refusing to discuss the past. 

In separate trials, Pasco County juries convicted Jent and Miller of raping and bludgeoning to death a woman known only as "Tammy" in 1979. She was later identified as Linda Gale Bradshaw, 20. The case was built largely on the testimony of witnesses who said that after a party near Dade City, the two men bashed the woman's head with a stick, raped her and set fire to her as she struggled to get up. 

Jent and Miller came within 16 hours of execution in 1983, and Miller says they were "ready to go. . . . We'd rather have died than to stay in that place for something we didn't do." 

A federal judge issued a stay. Two of the three supposed witnesses to the killing had recanted their testimony. And defense lawyers had uncovered evidence that the victim's boyfriend, who moved away after the murder, started dating another woman whose burned body was found in a field. He was never charged. 

In 1987, a federal district court threw out the convictions. Prosecutors had withheld evidence and acted with a "callous and deliberate disregard of the fundamental principles of truth and fairness," the court said. 

In January 1988, then-State Attorney James T. Russell allowed Jent and Miller to go free on time served -- in exchange for guilty pleas to second-degree murder. 

Miller says he isn't sorry he took the deal. "I can't own a gun," he says. "But I was free, I'm free, after 81/2 years of torment." 

Neither man's re-entry was smooth. Both were angry. A year after going free, Jent, once a tattooed member of a motorcycle gang, was arrested in Ohio on a misdemeanor marijuana charge. 

Miller, a former Marine, says he died a little when his ex-wife wouldn't let him see his two children. He'd stand inside a friend's house three doors down and watch them through a window. 

In 1991, the Pasco County Sheriff's Office paid the pair $65,000 to settle a wrongful-arrest lawsuit. Most of the money went toward lawyers' fees and expenses incurred by the victim's father, who testified that he didn't think Miller and Jent committed the murder. "The $14,000 I got bought me a nice Harley-Davidson," Miller says. 

Eventually, Jent moved to Arizona, where his wife, Patricia, boosted his spirits and helped him find God. She put all of their assets in her name and persuaded him to sweep the memories under the rug. Together they closely guard the secret of his past. 

"We have a good life," says Patricia. "We don't want to relive this. Nobody knows about Bill's past. We don't talk about it. We've turned it over to the Lord." 

Miller, meanwhile, started to put his life back together when he met his wife, Tamara Farmer, in Dayton seven years ago. A divorcee with four children, she says "it took a lot of love and a lot of work" to "break down the walls" of Miller's tough exterior. "He looked scary," she says. "He didn't trust anyone. He never laughed." 

The couple owns a '99 Ford Explorer and a four-bedroom house in a middle-class neighborhood of Dayton. Tamara's four children and Earnest's nephew live with them, along with a Rottweiler and two small dogs. The two children lost to him while on death row are planning to visit soon. 

Miller says he is haunted by suspicion. It doesn't happen often, but "when I get pulled over for a ticket, I automatically stick my hands out and put them on the car or keep them some place where the police can see them. It's something I never did before and now I have to do." 

Miller and Jent sometimes talk by telephone, though they rarely discuss death row or compare notes about how it affects their thinking and living. 

They have a lot in common: After years of being locked in cages, both work by themselves outdoors. After years of lost love and relationships, both have found supportive wives. And after years of fearing life and death on death row, both sometimes bolt awake in the middle of the night. 

A few weeks ago, Miller was a pallbearer at a funeral for his wife's grandfather. She says he was nervous about being inside in the church with a crowd. "He wanted out of there," she says, "but he stayed for me." 


 
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