Third Time’s a Charm

The Bolin case has particular appeal for me because it was the first murder case I ever covered as a cub reporter. My interview with Oscar’s ex-wife was the first time I ever talked to someone knowingly connected to murder.


Three strikes and you’re out has a different meaning for Florida death row inmate Oscar Ray Bolin, whose previous murder convictions were tossed out by the Florida Supreme Court for various reasons.
 
In the early 1990s, Bolin was serving a 75-years-to-life sentence for kidnapping and rape in Ohio while Hillsborough County, Florida authorities were faced with three stalled murder investigations involving three young women whose bodies were found throughout 1986.
 
On January 26, 1986, a jogger found the body of restaurant worker Natalie Blanche Holley, 25, in an orange grove near Tampa. Holley’s car was later found about five miles away from where her body was found.
 
In November, 17-year-old Stephanie Anne Collins disappeared from the parking lot of a shopping center. Her body was found in rural Hillsborough County on December 5.
 
The same day the body of Teri Lynn Mathews was found near some railroad tracks in Pasco County.
 
Bolin’s name surfaced in connection with the Holley investigation when his vehicle was identified as being in the area where her car was found the night Holley disappeared. However, the vehicle, registered to both Bolin and his wife, Cheryl, was not considered suspicious because Bolin family members lived in the area at the time.
 
The probe into Mathews’ killing later revealed that Bolin lived a little over a quarter-mile away from where the 26-year-old woman’s nude and badly beaten body was found. Bolin, a truck driver and sometime carnival worker, was a suspect based on his propensity for violence and his ties to two crime scenes, but authorities had no concrete evidence to tie him to the crimes.
 
That changed in 1991 when Cheryl Bolin Coby’s ex-husband contacted Crimestoppers in Fort Wayne, Ind. and alerted that organization that Cheryl had confessed her knowledge of Bolin’s crimes. Hillsborough authorities rushed to Indiana to interview her and shortly after, based in part on the information she provided, Bolin was indicted for the three murders.
 
It was the beginning of a decades-long legal odyssey that would see Bolin’s convictions in each of the cases thrown out at least twice.
 
Over defense objection Cheryl Coby testified that she was with Bolin when he “scoped out” the restaurant, where Holley worked and that they returned home where she fell asleep. She also stated that Bolin awakened her around 2 a.m. to tell her that he had abducted and killed the woman, and that she went with him to clean up Holley’s car, after which he threw away his blood-stained tennis shoes and the victim’s purse.
 
The problem with Coby’s testimony was that it involved privileged material, the Florida Supreme Court ruled.
 
In Florida law, a spouse has a privilege during and after the marital relationship to refuse to disclose, and to prevent another from disclosing, communications which were intended to be made in confidence between the spouses while they were husband and wife.
 
Cheryl Coby disclosed statements Bolin made to her in her interviews with police, during her discovery deposition taken by Bolin and her deposition taken by the state, and at trial. The defense objected both before and at trial that Cheryl could not relate Bolin’s statements because the spousal privilege had not been waived.
 
The trial court, however, agreed with the state that questioning her about Bolin’s statements during the discovery deposition, even though that deposition was kept confidential, constituted a waiver and allowed the state to introduce those statements through his ex-wife’s testimony at trial.
 
The state Supreme Court disagreed.

A discovery deposition is designed to elicit what a witness knows. The defense needs to ascertain what a spouse might know, but, if the privilege will be waived by merely asking, engaging in discovery can become extremely risky. Bolin and his attorneys tried to maintain the spousal privilege at every step of the proceedings. We reject the trial court’s conclusion that taking Mrs. Coby’s deposition waived that privilege.

In 1995, the high court ruled that Cheryl Coby could talk about what she and Bolin did together, but not about any of his statements to her.
 
A year later, Bolin’s younger brother testified that he witnessed Bolin beat Mathews to death.
 
Phillip Bolin, testified that he was awakened by Bolin on the night of December 4, 1986. Bolin appeared to be nervous and told Phillip that he needed Phillip’s help. As they walked outside, Phillip heard a moaning sound, which he thought could have been a wounded dog. Instead, he saw a
 
sheet-wrapped body, and Bolin told him that the girl was shot near the Land O’ Lakes Post Office after a failed drug deal (there was never any evidence that Mathews met Bolin that way).
 
“Bolin then walked over and straddled the body with his feet, raised a wooden stick with a metal end, and hit the body several times. Phillip said that he turned away because he was scared to watch, but compared the sound to hitting a pillow with a stick,” the Florida Supreme Court wrote in a summary of the case. “Bolin next turned on a water hose and sprayed the body. Bolin demanded that Phillip help him load the body onto the back of a black Ford tow truck, and Phillip helped by picking up the body by the ankles. Phillip refused Bolin’s offer of money to go with him to dispose of the body, so Bolin went alone and returned twenty to thirty minutes later. He continued talking to Phillip about the girl, stating that she had been shot in a drug deal.”
 
Despite Phillip Bolin’s testimony, that conviction was overturned in 1999, however, when the state Supreme Court said the trial had been tainted by too much publicity.
 
Bolin was retried in 1999 in the slayings of Holley and Collins. Prosecutors again relied on Coby’s statements because this time they argued Bolin had waived his spousal privilege when he left an apparent suicide note telling a sheriff’s investigator to talk to Coby about the three slayings.
 
Over Bolin’s objections, the trial judge allowed Coby’s incriminating statements, in the form of her videotaped deposition, to be used.
 
That was an error, the Supreme Court ruled again. The court concluded there wasn’t “competent, substantial evidence” that Bolin’s note was a voluntary waiver of his spousal privilege. Bolin had “steadfastly maintained” the privilege until writing the note.
 
In October 2001, he was convicted again.
 
“If you sentence me to death, judge, I would die for something I did not do,” Bolin said during his sentencing in December 2001. “The truth will be known some day.”

Update

In the spring of 2012, Bolin was given another trial for Holley’s murder. It took the jury less than 2 hours to find him guilty. He was given a life term. He remains on death row for his other convictions.

Update 2

Jan. 7, 2016. The world is a little better place today because Oscar Bolin is no longer in it. He was executed by lethal injection by the State of Florida this evening.