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January execution scheduled for killer

LIMA, Ohio - Repeating what a jury decided last week, Allen County Common Pleas Judge Richard Warren yesterday sentenced Jeronique Cunningham to death for killing a toddler and a teenager during a robbery.

“May God have mercy on your soul,” Judge Warren said before slamming down his gavel. Cunningham, 29, of Lima showed no emotion.

He was convicted of two counts of aggravated murder, six counts of attempted aggravated murder, and one count of aggravated robbery after a jury trial in which all six surviving victims took the stand.

Judge Warren also sentenced Cunningham to a total of 100 years in prison for the remaining charges: 10 years for each of the seven counts, three years for gun specifications on each count, and nine years for a repeat violent-offender specification.

During Cunningham's trial, five survivors testified that Cunningham and his half-brother, Cleveland Jackson, were invited into the Eureka Street apartment Jan. 3.

Jackson allegedly wanted to buy crack cocaine from Layshane Liles, who lived there, but after disagreeing with him over the price, Jackson and Cunningham herded the group into the kitchen, robbed them of money and jewelry, and shot them.

Killed were Leneshia Williams, 17, and Jala Grant, 3. The most seriously injured, Armetta Robinson, 27, was hospitalized for nearly three months.

Judge Warren said in reviewing the jury's decision for the death penalty, the only mitigating factors he gave even a slight amount of weight to were Cunningham's troubled childhood and pleas by his sister and mother to spare his life. He said the circumstances of his crimes not only outweighed those factors, “but pale in comparison thereto.”

The judge set Cunningham's execution for Jan. 3 - exactly a year after his crime.

Because of a pending appeal to the Ohio Supreme Court, it is unlikely Cunningham will be put to death that day.

Lead defense attorney Gregory Donohue said he was disappointed in the sentence because he felt the evidence showed only one gun was fired during the attack, and that gun belonged to Jackson.

“We were a bit disappointed that a jury would give death to an individual they could not say actually pulled the trigger and killed someone,” Mr. Donohue said.

Cunningham's death sentence follows just one day after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled it unconstitutional for judges, rather than juries, to decide whether the aggravating circumstances exist to send a defendant to Death Row.

Ohio is not affected by the ruling because state law says a jury must unanimously recommend a death sentence before it can be enacted and, if the jury recommends a life sentence, a judge cannot overrule it, said Joe Case, spokesman for the Ohio attorney general's office.

Judge Warren said after Cunningham's sentencing that he clearly instructs jurors that in making their decision about a life sentence or the death penalty, they are to consider their recommendation “as if it is final.”

Still, as a judge, he reviews the case “after the jury has done it so that it protects the defendant.”

Wood County Prosecutor Alan Mayberry said he suspects some of the more than 200 people on Death Row in Ohio may see the Supreme Court's ruling as grounds for new appeals, but any attempts would only further delay their executions.

“Those are simply not in line with this decision,” he said. “The judge's evaluation does not abridge the right to a jury - it is in addition to the right to a jury.”

Cunningham's co-defendant, Jackson, 23, also faces the death penalty if convicted on similar charges in the Eureka Street shooting.

His trial is scheduled to begin July 16 before Common Pleas Judge Jeffrey Reed, though Jackson's attorney, Bill Kluge, is trying to have it moved out of town because of extensive pretrial publicity.

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