A jury-room prayer shouldn't have been allowed, but that is not grounds for resentencing a man now on death row for the murder, rape, and robbery of a South Toledo woman, a judge has ruled.
Judge Richard Markus of Cuyahoga County said yesterday that a bailiff should have discouraged an alternate juror from initiating the prayer during the sentencing phase in the 1999 murder trial of Robert Williams, Jr. However, the judge said the prayer, in which jurors held hands and asked for guidance in their deliberation, did not violate Williams' constitutional rights, nor did it interfere with the process of the defendant's right to a fair trial.
A jury in Lucas County Common Pleas Court convicted Williams, 39, of aggravated murder, rape, robbery, and burglary in the 1999 strangulation of Velma McDowell, 89, in her Glendale Avenue apartment.
During the penalty phase of the trial to determine whether Williams should get the death penalty, the jury and four alternate jurors were sequestered overnight in a downtown Toledo hotel.
The next morning, as they were preparing to return to the courthouse, an alternate juror approached bailiff Lynne Hartley and asked if they could pray. Mrs. Hartley, who said she neither en-
couraged nor discouraged a prayer, bowed her head out of respect as some jurors prayed, with some holding hands with other jurors.
The panel returned to the courthouse, deliberated less than an hour, and recommended that Williams die by lethal injection. Judge Charles Wittenberg imposed the panel's recommendation.
In September, 2002, the Ohio 6th District Court of Appeals ordered a hearing into whether the bailiff's participation in the prayer had any influence on the panel's deliberation.
Judge Markus was assigned by the Ohio Supreme Court to decide whether Williams deserved a new hearing in the sentencing phase of the trial. Yesterday, the judge heard the testimony of Mrs. Hartley, two jurors, attorneys Merle Dech and Joe Scalzo, who represented Williams at the trial, and Trent Scholler, the alternate juror who led the joint prayer.
Judge Markus rejected the motion for a new sentencing in part because Mr. Scholler did not refer specifically to God when he made a request for guidance, but instead asked for tranquility or "peace of mind" to make a decision.
Angie Greene with the Ohio Public Defenders Office, who represents Williams in the appeal of his case, said Judge Markus' decision will be appealed to the Ohio 6th District Court of Appeals. She said the case, because of a lack of precedent, could ultimately go to the U.S. Supreme Court.
"This case has a number of interesting angles that the federal courts will want to examine," she said.