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Hoping A Painful Lesson Is Learned

St. Petersburg Times

Sandra Sutherland’s murder on 1/16/91 was dwarfed by the start of Desert Storm. Her parents’ outrage during the killer’s trial was suppressed by a judicial system that forbade them to speak.Then Robert and Ruth Sutherland sued the company responsible for the faulty alarm system in Sandra’s apartment and the apartment complex where she was killed.

The Sutherland’s recently received more than $2-million to settle the case – the largest settlement of its kind in Florida history, according to their attorney.

Finally, they said Monday, they were able to avenge their daughter’s death.

“The money doesn’t mean anything. It will never bring our daughter back,” said Mrs. Sutherland. “We want to get the word out to apartment complexes that they should live by the law. If they are aware something is going on, they should notify the tenants.”

If Sandra had been murdered three months earlier, her parents would not have been able to sue because of a loophole in Florida law. In October 1990, the state Legislature passed a bill allowing the parents of adult children to sue for a wrongful death.

“It was just a hole in the statute,” said the Sutherlands’ lawyer, Henry Valenzuela. “The parents suffered a tremendous amount. They lived this case fro a long time.”

Sandra Sutherland, 36, was the eldest of three children and had been promised her parent’s Tampa brake repair business. Robert Sutherland had plans to retire and let Sandra take over. Meanwhile, Sandra took night classes at the University of South Florida and worked 60 hours a week for Eastern Airlines and her parents.

On Jan. 16, the day Desert Storm began, she called her parents to wish them a happy 37th anniversary. It was 8:05 a.m.

“Have the boys called yet?” she asked her mother.

“No, Sandra, not yet,” her mother replied.

Sandra called her brothers in Atlanta and New Jersey to remind them. At 9:30 a.m. the phone rang again in the Sutherlands’ Apollo Beach home. It was Sandra.

“Mother there’s something I forgot to tell you,” she said.

Then Mrs. Sutherland heard Sandra speak away from the phone. “Oh, hi…”

She got back on the line to say someone was in the apartment. She promised to call back, but never did. Robert Sutherland finally called the apartment complex to have someone check on Sandra.

According to police and court records, Charles W. Finney, then 38, broke in that morning, bound and gagged the woman and stabbed her 13 times. His fingerprints were found in the apartment.

Finney was caught 13 days after the killing when he raped and terrorized a Hillsborough shop owner.

He was sentenced last year to die in the electric chair. The judge added another two life sentences plus 45 years, to take effect if the death sentence is overturned.

The Sutherlands said Sandra’s death could have been prevented.

Sandra had moved into Apartment 378 in the Brookside Apartments the pervious September. In December 1990, Gator Telecom Inc. installed an alarm system but failed to activate it. Sandra was waiting for a technician the morning she died.

Her parents later learned that Finney, a neighbor of the complex, was a known threat. He had beaten another woman and other assaults had been reported, they said.

“We were told in the depositions that the management was aware of all that and would not tell the tenants,” Mrs. Sutherland said. “This is the message that needs to go out.”

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