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Judge rules against death for defendant in slayings

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Cameo Pettaway, left, and Samuel Williams


Only one of two men charged in the asphyxiation deaths of a Springfield Township woman and her boyfriend will face the possibility of the death penalty if convicted.

Lucas County Common Pleas Judge James Bates ruled Tuesday that Cameo Pettaway, 23, of 133 Essex St. meets the legal definition of mentally retarded, so he can't be sentenced to death if convicted in the murders of Lisa Straub, 20, and Johnny Clarke, 21. The two were found Jan. 31, 2011, bound by duct tape and with plastic bags over their heads, in the home of Ms. Straub's parents on Longacre Lane.

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Related article: Jury selection begins in Williams capital murder case

Mr. Pettaway and Samuel Williams, 24, of 1626 Kelsey Ave. are charged with two counts of aggravated murder, one count of aggravated burglary, and two counts of kidnapping for the brutal slayings.

"While this is a very difficult decision … because of the nature of this particular case, it was a relatively easy decision based on the evidence presented during the course of the trial," Judge Bates said, adding that the defense had presented an impressive amount of documentation to support their contention that Mr. Pettaway is mentally disabled.

Judge Bates found Mr. Pettaway competent to stand trial but dismissed the death-penalty specification based largely on testimony Monday from two psychologists.

John Matthew Fabian, a forensic psychologist from Cleveland, testified about his evaluation of Mr. Pettaway, which included interviews with the defendant and his family members, psychological testing, and a review of school and medical records. Mr. Fabian concluded Mr. Pettaway has an IQ of about 70 and meets the legal definition of mentally retarded.

"The court … finds that the defendant has proven by a preponderance of evidence that he has significant subaverage intellectual functioning, that he experiences significant limitations in two or more adaptive skills, and that there is a substantial amount of documentation that these issues began before the age of 18," Judge Bates said, referring to the three criteria established by the Ohio Supreme Court to define a developmentally disabled person in death-penalty cases.

In 2002, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled executing developmentally disabled people to be unconstitutional, but left it up to individual death-penalty states to develop their own developmental disabilities criteria.

After Mr. Pettaway and Mr. Williams were arrested, nine months after the murders, both victims' families asked prosecutors to seek the death penalty. Jim Verbosky, a Straub family spokesman, was in court Tuesday but declined to comment, citing a court-imposed gag order.

Shortly after Judge Bates announced his decision, about 50 prospective jurors were led into his courtroom for the start of jury selection. The judge said he hoped to seat a 12-person jury, with four alternates, by today, possibly followed by opening statements in Mr. Pettaway's case. Judge Bates said the court would then recess until Monday, when Judge Dean Mandros expects to have a jury seated in Mr. Williams' case.

Jury selection in Mr. Williams' case began Tuesday morning and was expected to take up to three days. The case's death-penalty specification has prompted Judge Mandros, prosecutors, and defense attorneys to interview the 82 prospective jurors individually, including asking them their opinions of the death penalty.

The first witnesses are scheduled to testify Monday, and most of the witnesses are expected to testify in both of the simultaneous trials. It's unusual, but not unprecedented, for co-defendants to undergo simultaneous trials, Court Administrator Don Colby said.

In 1998, Judge Bates presided over a simultaneous trial for two men charged in the shotgun slaying of a Toledo man. In that case, two separate juries were empaneled but were seated on opposite sides of the courtroom to hear testimony.

Contact Jennifer Feehan at: or 419-724-6129.

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