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Soon after finding Anthony Belton guilty of aggravated murder and aggravated robbery for the 2008 shooting death of a BP clerk, a panel of three Lucas County Common Pleas Court judges began hearing testimony to determine whether he will be sentenced to life in prison or to death row.
The judges announced guilty verdicts at about 12:45 p.m. Wednesday after deliberating for about two hours. Judges Ruth Ann Franks, James Jensen, and Gene Zmuda heard testimony from 11 witnesses over two days and considered more than 100 exhibits.
Belton, 26, pleaded no contest Monday to aggravated murder and two counts of aggravated robbery as well as capital specifications and gun specifications in the killing of Matthew Dugan, 34, during a robbery at the former BP gas station at Dorr Street and Secor Road. In a plea of no contest, a defendant does not admit guilt but does not challenge the facts in the indictment.
The verdict meant the start of a second phase, or mitigation hearing, in which the defense presents evidence about Belton's past.
Belton's mother and great-aunt, as well as an investigator for the Ohio Public Defender's Office and a forensic counselor at the Lucas County jail, each testified Wednesday about interactions with Belton.
Kim Howard, Belton's mother, testified she had a troubled time when her three sons were young, and at one time she was forced to send Belton and his younger brother to California to live with their father for five years because she was incarcerated. Belton returned to Toledo when he was just shy of 18 years old, she said.
She further testified that she was strict, and that when Belton, her eldest son, disobeyed her rules, she made him leave her house. During that time, he lived in his grandmother's house with several other relatives.
When questioned by the assistant prosecutor, Ms. Howard said her other two boys have not had problems with the law and acknowledged that Belton doesn't like to listen to rules.
Additional testimony is expected Thursday, including from a forensic psychologist who interviewed Belton.
Once the testimony is completed, the judges must consider whether the aggravating circumstances of the crime outweigh any mitigating factors presented by Belton's attorneys. If the panel unanimously believes the state has proved its case beyond a reasonable doubt, then the sentence would be death.
If one or more of the judges doesn't believe the case was proved, then they could impose a sentence of life without parole, life with parole eligibility after 30 years, or life with parole eligibility after 25 years.
During the trial's closing arguments Wednesday, Assistant Prosecutor Rob Miller asked the judges to consider the videos played, including police interviews with Belton that lasted more than three hours and a surveillance video that recorded the Aug. 13, 2008, robbery and shooting.
"Notice the fear when [Mr. Dugan] jumped back, [Belton] receives his cash …," Mr. Miller dictates while showing the video depicting Mr. Dugan's final moments.
"And when [Mr. Dugan] turns around … the defendant leans forward into the shot and executes his victim."
Mr. Miller told judges it wasn't an accident that caused the gun to fire but instead Belton getting rid of the only witness to his crime.
"… When he leans in and points that firearm at the back of Matthew Dugan's head, he's ensuring it was an accurate shot and it was a fatal shot," he said.
Defense attorney Pete Rost argued to the panel that the state's theory defied logic in that if Belton wanted to avoid detection, he would have chosen to rob a place where his face was unknown.
"If Mr. Belton's plan was to go in there, rob the carryout, and shoot Mr. Dugan, then it's fairly peculiar that he would pick a place where he was familiar," he said.
Mr. Rost asked the judges to consider dismissing the capital specifications "in the interest of justice."
Mr. Dugan's family members declined to comment after the verdict, noting that the trial continued straight into the mitigation phase. Attorneys for both the state and defense also declined to comment, noting the continued trial.
When leaving the courtroom after the verdict was announced for a short break before the mitigation hearing began, Belton smiled to his family, and said, "I'm good."
Contact Erica Blake at: firstname.lastname@example.org or 419-213-2134.