COLUMBUS - The Ohio Supreme Court yesterday upheld the aggravated murder and rape convictions of Shawn C. Williams but threw out his death sentence and ordered a new sentencing hearing in Lucas County.
He could receive the death penalty again or escape the executioner by receiving a prison term.
In 1999, a Lucas County jury found Williams guilty of the 1995 rape and strangulation of his girlfriend, Catrise Gregory, then 17. Moments after Williams was found guilty on a Friday, he punched one of his attorneys, Spiros Cocoves, in the face.
Mr. Cocoves and his co-counsel, Ronnie Wingate, didn't visit Williams over the weekend at the jail to prepare for the second phase of the trial, in which the jury weighed whether Williams should get the death penalty.
Although he initially said he was willing to continue to represent Williams, Mr. Cocoves the next Monday told Judge James Jensen of Lucas County Common Pleas Court that he could not zealously represent him. Judge Jensen rejected the request from Mr. Cocoves and Mr. Wingate to withdraw from the case. The jury recommended a death sentence for Williams, and Judge Jensen sentenced him to death.
But the Supreme Court said Judge Jensen “abused his discretion” in denying the request of the two attorneys to withdraw from the case.
“By denying the motions, the trial court put counsel in an untenable position,” Justice Evelyn Stratton wrote in the unanimous decision. “They had very little communication with Williams, they were frightened of him, and they worried that their fear would be revealed to the jury through their body language when at the defense table.” The Supreme Court also said Williams deserves a new sentencing hearing because of “extensive prosecutorial misconduct” by J. Christopher Anderson, an assistant Lucas County prosecutor, as the jury considered whether to give Williams the death penalty. The Supreme Court said Mr. Anderson made “flagrantly improper” statements to the jury that aren't factors under state law in weighing a penalty - such as what may have been Ms. Gregory's final thoughts, her mother's suffering, and the death of Ms. Gregory's unborn child.
“We have long held that prosecutors may not speculate about what the victim was thinking when she died,” Justice Stratton wrote.
Mr. Anderson acknowledged yesterday he had erred. “I would not do that again.”
The Supreme Court said Williams could have avoided the death sentence if he had received better help from his attorneys during the penalty phase of the trial.
Justice Paul Pfeifer agreed with most of the ruling but wrote a separate opinion that Williams should not be eligible for the death sentence when his new sentencing hearing is held. He said the prime evidence that Williams raped Ms. Gregory was a bruise found on her body that the Lucas County Coroner's Office said could not have been caused by “normal sexual activity.”
“That seems a bold statement given the wide range of consensual sexual activity practiced in our society,” Justice Pfeifer wrote. “I find it difficult to believe that the bruise could only have been caused by rape.”
But the court majority noted that DNA evidence and other injuries on Ms. Gregory's body were evidence that Williams raped her.
At the March 11 arguments in front of the Supreme Court, attorney Jeff Gamso said Williams deserved a new trial in part because juror Audrey Middlebrooks said she felt unfairly pressured and threatened by fellow jurors before she signed the document that found Williams guilty of rape and aggravated murder.
The Supreme Court yesterday said once jurors are asked for their verdicts in a death-penalty case and agree to a verdict, they may not rescind or change their vote later.