Day: May 17, 2012

OHIO – Death as bargaining chip? Ohio prosecutor slammed

May 17, 2012 Source :

COLUMBUS — Within days of a drug-related slaying in suburban Cleveland, six men were indicted on charges that carried the possibility of a death sentence. Six months later, all had been allowed to plead to lesser charges, including four who received probation and never went to prison.

In short, the men quickly went from facing the possibility of being strapped to a gurney and having 5 grams of pentobarbital injected into their veins, to prison sentences more typical for robbers and thieves.

“It probably was a negotiating tool,” said defense attorney Reuben Sheperd, who represented defendant Alex Ford. “You’ll be more motivated than you were in other circumstances.”

Such scenarios are typical in the county home to Cleveland, where prosecutor Bill Mason pursues dozens of offenders on capital charges each year at added expense to taxpayers and at the risk of some defendants ending up on death row for charges that would be minor elsewhere, even as the number of death penalty prosecutions plummets in Ohio and nationwide, according to an analysis of records by theAssociated Press.

Elsewhere in Ohio, prosecutors are pursuing only the most heinous crimes as death penalty cases and are refusing to plea bargain, or are using a 2005 law that allows them to seek life with no chance of parole and never place capital punishment on the table.

Mason denies he uses the death penalty as a negotiating tool but also says he never rules out the possibility of lesser charges as more information about a case comes to light.

The 2010 case in the suburb of Parma cost Cuyahoga County taxpayers more than $120,000 — the price of the experts and attorneys appointed because the cases involved the death penalty.

Defense attorneys have long complained about the high number of capital indictments in Cuyahoga County, a practice that precedes Mason but that he continued after first taking office in 2000. But now one of the state’s most conservative and pro-death penalty prosecutors is weighing in.

Joe Deters, prosecutor in Hamilton County, renewed questions about Cuyahoga County’s approach during meetings of an Ohio Supreme Court task force. The group, which meets again Thursday , is looking for ways to improve the state’s death penalty law.

“To use the death penalty to force a plea bargain, I think it’s unethical to do that,” Deters said in an interview.

Hamilton County, home to Cincinnati, has sent the most inmates to Ohio’s death row — 61 over 30 years — though the county has indicted fewer than 200 people in three decades. Deters doesn’t accept plea bargains once he decides to pursue a death penalty case.

Mason says a committee of assistant prosecutors reviews the evidence of each death penalty case and encourages defense attorneys to produce reasons that could weigh against the death penalty.

“When we seek the death penalty it is not to secure a plea bargain, but instead to equally apply the law,” Mason said.

Despite the higher number of capital indictments, Mason’s record of winning death sentences is no better than other counties, some of them smaller than Cuyahoga, with about 1.3 million residents.

From 2009 to 2011, for example, Cuyahoga County indicted 135 defendants on charges that could result in a death sentence, according to records maintained by Mason’s office. Only two of those offenders were sent to death row, including Anthony Sowell, convicted in 2011 of killing 11 women.

The rest either pleaded guilty, usually with the death penalty charges withdrawn, or were convicted but not sentenced to death. In six cases, charges were dismissed.

By contrast, Butler County in southwest Ohio, with 368,000 residents, recorded three death sentences during the same time but indicted just six people on capital charges.

“The proof of guilt in a death penalty case has to be near absolute, not a crap shoot,” said Butler County prosecutor Michael Gmoser . In addition, “The case has to shock the conscience of the community,” he said.

Other prosecutors and counties have faced similar criticism for high numbers of indictment. In Philadelphia, former district attorney Lynne Abraham was once dubbed “America’s deadliest DA” by The New York Times Magazine for her aggressive pursuit of the death penalty. Some African-American groups had criticized her for her death penalty stance.

In Arizona’s Maricopa County, home to Phoenix, capital cases were so numerous that in 2007 the state’s Supreme Court Chief Justice convened a task force to look at ways “to address the unprecedented number of capital cases awaiting trial” in the county.

Cuyahoga County brings so many death penalty cases that, in a twist on tough-on-crime politics, candidates running for prosecutor promised to vastly reduce the number of indictments. Mason is not running for re-election.

Mason’s approach runs counter to a 40-year-old U.S. Supreme Court decision that threw out the country’s death penalty laws in part over the arbitrariness of the laws in place at the time, said Ohio state public defender Tim Young.

The risk of someone ending up on death row for a crime that might be a far lesser offense elsewhere “seems like a wildly dangerous use” of the death penalty, Young added.

Just 78 inmates nationally were sentenced to death in 2011, the lowest number since the U.S. Supreme Court reinstated capital punishment in 1976, and nearly two-thirds lower than the 224 death sentences in 2000.

High numbers of capital charges, and the use of plea bargains in death penalty cases, have been examined in several states by the American Bar Association. The ABA’s 2007 review of Ohio’s death penalty system also cited Cuyahoga County’s high number of indictments.

In Kentucky, the ABA noted that the large number of capital indictments — dozens if not hundreds — compared with death sentences “calls into question as to whether current charging practices ensure the fair, efficient, and effective enforcement of criminal law.”

In Tennessee, a 2004 report by the state’s Comptroller of the Treasury that examined the law’s cost found widespread disparities with how prosecutors used the law, with some treating it as a “bargaining chip” to secure plea bargains. “Meanwhile, defense attorneys must prepare their cases, often without knowing the punishment the prosecutor intends to seek,” the report said.

OHIO – Death penalty for Ohio man in triple stabbing – Caron Montgomery

May 16, 2012 Source :

COLUMBUS, — A three-judge panel on Tuesday handed down a death penalty verdict for an Ohio man after he pleaded guilty to killing a woman he lived with and her two children on Thanksgiving Day in 2010.

The Franklin County death verdict for Caron Montgomery of Columbus was the county’s first in a decade and also a relatively rare case of a death penalty verdict following a guilty plea.

The panel will formally sentence Montgomery to death May 22. On Tuesday, the judges found that the circumstances of the crime outweighed evidence that Montgomery presented as to why he should be spared, and that a death sentence was the appropriate punishment.

The three-judge panel “followed the law and rendered their verdict based upon the overwhelming evidence presented,” Prosecutor Ron O’Brien said in a statement. Montgomery’s attorney, Scott Weisman, declined to comment.

Montgomery, 38, pleaded guilty earlier this month to multiple counts of aggravated murder and single counts of murder and domestic violence.

Police found Tia Hendricks and her 2-year-old and 10-year-old children stabbed to death inside Hendricks’ Columbus apartment the day after the killings.

At least seven defendants have received the death penalty after pleading guilty before such panels over the past 30 years in Ohio, including another Franklin County man, Michael Turner, who pleaded guilty in 2002 to killing his estranged wife and her boyfriend.

That’s compared to dozens of cases where three-judge panels found defendants guilty and then sentenced them to death.

Turner remains on death row. Four of the seven defendants who pleaded guilty have since been executed.

After 20 years in prison, man cleared in ’86 Waukegan rape – Bennie Starks

may 15, 2012  Source :

Starks case dismissed

Lake County prosecutors have dropped rape charges against Bennie Starks, who spent 20 years in prison before DNA pointed away from him.

Assistant State’s Attorney Jim Newman appeared at a brief hearing and dropped the sexual assault charges.

“He is a free man and he is not guilty,” said Starks’ lawyer, Jed Stone.

Starks, dressed in a burgundy sport coat and black and white checked shirt, accepted a hug around the shoulder from another of his lawyers, Vanessa Potkin from the New York-based Innocence Project.

“This has been a great day,” Starks said.

As to his plans, he said, “Spend time with my grandkids and just…living.”

Starks, 52, of Chicago was convicted in 1986 of raping a 69-year-old woman in Waukegan. He was in the middle of a 60-year sentence when the appeals court ordered a new trial in 2006 and he was released on bond. As with three other recent Lake County cases, prosecutors insisted on his guilt even after DNA pointed toward someone else as the attacker.

The possibility of a retrial had been thrown into doubt by court rulings barring prosecutors from using the testimony of the victim, who identified Starks as the rapist.

She died several years ago, and a Lake County judge ruled in January 2011 that prosecutors could not use her past testimony at the retrial.

The state appeals court affirmed that decision in February, writing that Starks’ lawyers would not have a fair shot at cross-examining her and holding that the original cross-examination was inadequate.

Since February’s ruling, Starks has waited to learn whether prosecutors planned to retry him.

After the conflicting DNA evidence became public in the early 2000s, prosecutors responded much as they did to other cases involving forensic evidence suggesting a suspect’s innocence.

Prosecutors argued that the DNA did not clear Starks because the woman could have had consensual sex with someone else, although she said at trial she had not had sex in the weeks before the attack.

The woman identified him as the man who pulled her into a ravine and beat, bit and raped her. A dentist said bite marks on the victim matched Starks, and his jacket was found at the scene.

Starks said the jacket and money were stolen from him after he passed the evening in a local tavern, and the defense attorneys have called the scientific rigor of the bite-mark evidence into question.

In the early 2000s, testing turned up a genetic profile from another man on the victim’s underwear. Later, testing on a vaginal swab found DNA that didn’t come from Starks, and the appeals court ordered a new trial in 2006.

This morning, it first appeared that Starks’ wait to have his name cleared might continue.

Newman, the assistant state’s attorney, surprised Starks’ defense lawyers at the start of today’s hearing when, instead of immediately dropping the charges, he asked for a continuance while the appeals court considers Stark’s challenge to his battery conviction. Starks hopes to see that conviction — which stems from the same crime — wiped from his record.

Without pause, Judge John Phillips tersely declined that request and told prosecutors to make a decision on retrying Starks immediately. Newman left court for a few minutes to consult with his superiors, then returned to begin filling out paperwork for Starks’ case before the judge returned.

Stone, one Starks lawyers, approached Newman as he filled out a court form and smiled as he said, “That’s N-O-L-L-E,” a reference to the Latin phrase, nolle prosequi, which indicates a prosecutor is dropping charges.

When Phillips returned, Newman dropped the charges and hurried from the courtroom. He declined to comment on the decision.