Debate Coach Gets Life Term In Stabbing Death Of Student

COLUMBIANA, Ala. - A university debate coach was sentenced to life in prison yesterday for the stabbing death of his star student.

Prosecutors claimed William Slagle, a debate coach at Samford University, killed Rex Bartley Copeland because the student had failed to adequately prepare for a competition.

``Nobody deserves to get hacked to death for not doing his homework,'' Shelby County District Attorney Mike Campbell told the jury that convicted Slagle.

Copeland, 20, died in his apartment on Sept. 21, 1989 of knife wounds. Slagle, 42, disappeared for several months after the killing. He claimed self-defense and asked for leniency during his trial.

Dennis Balske, Slagle's attorney, said he would appeal the conviction on grounds that widespread publicity affected the trial. He said about 25 former students and colleagues had written to Circuit Judge John Rochester, saying Slagle ``inspired students to higher things and always came to their aid in times of need.''

But Copeland's father said the life term ``shows you cannot take a human life without paying the price.''

Balske said his client went to Copeland's apartment at 2 a.m. because his student was upset after a debate practice. Copeland was not prepared for a tournament that weekend, and had put too much pressure on himself by trying to be a debater, weight lifter and fraternity member, he said.

``All that pressure, all that resentment he held against Mr. Slagle burst that night,'' Balske said.

He claimed that Slagle acted in self-defense when Copeland attacked him with a knife. Slagle was treated at a hospital about 4 1/2 hours later for a slashed arm.

The prosecutor told jurors Copeland suffered four major knife wounds, any one of which could have killed him. Campbell said Slagle ``attended to himself first and left Rex lying there dead.''

After cleaning himself, Slagle ``closed the blind, turned out the lights and most certainly locked the door,'' Campbell said, ``and he left Rex Copeland in that bloody tomb for almost two days.''

Slagle left a note for Copeland on his office door later that day, and that evening called the student on his answering machine.

Slagle disappeared for half a year and mailed letters from Nashville, Tenn., and Los Angeles to Shelby County authorities saying he was innocent.