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Case of Marijuana Grower Far From Over : Alabama: Three witnesses recant testimony that helped convict Ronnie Chandler of murder. But some neighbors still fear him.


PIEDMONT, Ala. — By anyone's account, Ronnie Chandler wasn't the typical marijuana cowboy in a town where pot is a cottage industry.

Chandler was from a good family. He grew up singing tenor at the Piedmont Church of God. He ran for mayor, state representative and other offices four times, always losing. He didn't smoke or curse.

"Ronnie's always cared about helping people, about trying to make a difference," said his wife, Debbie Chandler, the mother of his three children.

As the years passed, though, it seemed there was another side to this short, muscular man.

A home-builder by trade, Chandler began coming to town dressed in camouflage clothes, a pistol holstered under his arm. He used a big wad of cash to pay for rings and other items.

More ominously, Chandler's enemies started disappearing in the hills of northeast Alabama, where jobs and people are scarce.

Today Chandler, 42, has a death sentence hanging over him. He was the first person sentenced to die under a 1988 law allowing the federal death penalty.

It became a federal case because it was a drug conspiracy involving murder, which is covered under the 1988 law. Sixteen people in all were indicted, and all pleaded guilty or were convicted.

A jury on April 2, 1991, convicted Chandler of ordering the slaying of police informant Marlin Shuler, and prosecutors also contend that he is linked to the alleged killings of two other men missing since 1990. U.S. District Judge James H. Hancock imposed the death sentence on May 14, 1991. The execution was set for March 30, but Hancock issued a stay on March 21 as Chandler's appeal worked through the courts.

Three key witnesses from Chandler's 1991 trial have recanted their testimony, and Hancock has given defense attorneys until mid-December to give him more information. He also is considering claims that a lawyer who previously represented Chandler was ineffective.

Meanwhile, Chandler is being held at Holman prison in Atmore, which houses Alabama's Death Row. If the sentence is upheld, he will be executed at the federal prison in Terre Haute, Ind.

Debbie Chandler, a deeply religious woman whose conversation is punctuated with references to the Bible, laughs aloud at the idea of her husband ordering a killing.

She can't even believe that Chandler was a marijuana farmer, although defense lawyer Jack Martin admits that much.

"If Ronnie has ever done anything like that, he totally hid it from the family and from me," Debbie Chandler said. "It would have literally been a death blow to him for anyone to find out."

Many townspeople are still in Chandler's corner.

"I don't believe that Ronnie Chandler murdered anyone or would have had anyone murdered," Louise Simpson, 67, said in a sworn statement to be introduced as a character reference at the hearing.

Even Police Chief Jimmy Trammell, who has known Chandler for years, said he doesn't know if Chandler had anyone killed. "He was kind of a unique person, a boaster," Trammell said.

Prosecutors say Chandler once schemed to kill a former police chief, Rickey Doyal, although the plot was never carried out. Doyal has since left law enforcement to enter the ministry.

Guilty or innocent, there is a palpable fear of Chandler in the town he once roamed with impunity.

"He just got off with the wrong crowd, but don't you use my name," a member of his church said. "I don't want to get killed. People are afraid he can get somebody out here to kill 'em if they say anything."

A merchant was visibly upset while discussing the way Chandler used to flash cash in Piedmont, a small town about 80 miles northeast of Birmingham.

"He's got friends and they might come burn your house down," said the shopkeeper, who, like most everyone in town, spoke only on condition of anonymity.

Chandler's bid to avoid death by lethal injection is based mainly on claims that jurors heard a flood of incriminating lies during his trial.

The defense is basing most of its hopes on Charles Ray Jarrell, Chandler's brother-in-law. Jarrell testified that Chandler promised him $5,000 to kill Shuler, but he now says that police coerced him into making the statement.

Jarrell's son, Billy Joe Jarrell, also recanted testimony that he heard Chandler offer his father money to kill Shuler. And Melissa McFry recanted statements that she heard Chandler threaten to kill Jeff McFry, her former brother-in-law, if McFry continued stealing Chandler's marijuana.

McFry was last seen Sept. 5, 1990, the day before Shuler's body was found buried in the woods of east Alabama, shot with a 9-millimeter weapon. Another man suspected of stealing marijuana from Chandler, Patrick Burrows, disappeared about three weeks earlier.

McFry and Burrows remain missing, but Charles Ray Jarrell led authorities to Shuler's remains.

Jarrell, an alcoholic, is serving a 25-year sentence for the Shuler killing. He now claims he shot Shuler in a drunken rage because Shuler had beaten and abused his wife, Donna Shuler--Jarrell's sister--and Imogene Johnson, Jarrell's mother.

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