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Convicted murderer wants plea withdrawn

LIMA, Ohio - More than a decade ago, Amy Sue Northern was sentenced to a minimum of 15 years in prison after she pleaded guilty to murdering a local school teacher.

Yesterday Northern, 33, was back in Allen County Common Pleas Court hoping her case will be one of the thousands affected by a recent Ohio Supreme Court decision.

Flanked by her public defenders, Northern was in court to try to withdraw the guilty plea she entered in the 1990 murder case. Instead of hearing the case, Judge Richard Warren granted a stay because Northern was scheduled to appear before the parole board in the next few months.

If she is paroled, the judge said, the hearing would be moot. If not, her attorneys said she would be back in court this summer asking for a new trial.

“In criminal law the standard for determining whether a defendant may withdraw a plea is whether there is a manifest injustice,” said Charles Clovis who, along with Stephen Hardwick, is representing Northern. “We consider a breach in her plea agreement a manifest injustice.”

Northern was convicted in the death of Darlene Crawford, a 36-year-old school teacher who taught third grade at Washington-McKinley Elementary School in Lima. According to investigators, Northern strangled the young woman because she was having an affair with Mrs. Crawford's husband, James.

At age 20, Northern was indicted on a charge of aggravated murder, which carries a penalty of 20 years to life in prison. She pleaded guilty to a murder charge and was sentenced to 15 years to life in prison.

After serving more than 12 years of that sentence, she should be considered for parole, her public defenders said. But because of past practice of the parole board, she was not given that chance, Mr. Clovis said.

“There was a breach in her plea agreement based on the actions of the Adult Parole Authority,” he added. “She pleaded guilty to murder but the parole board treated her as if she was found guilty of aggravated murder.”

Cases such as this were addressed in a recent state Supreme Court decision. In a 6-1 decision in December, the court said the parole board, when marking its scoring graph, must consider only those crimes for which an inmate was convicted.

Before the decision, the Ohio Adult Parole Authority also had been taking into consideration crimes for which inmates had been accused or indicted on but not convicted. Based on the court's decision, the state was ordered to review those cases of people still incarcerated for crimes that occurred before July 1, 1996.

Northern's attorneys said yesterday that their client was one of more than 5,000 inmates whose case needs to be reviewed.

Many of Mrs. Crawford's family were in court yesterday, coming from all over the state to be at the hearing.

Mrs. Crawford's siblings - some of whom were wearing black and red ribbons in remembrance of victims of violent crime - said they sympathize with those inmates who have been treated unfairly. But they were angry yesterday that Northern may see the parole board in the next few months - something they felt was unjust.

“I resent this hearing as a tag along to that [Supreme Court] case. I think it's a waste of Allen County tax dollars and is simply a way to have her case heard earlier,” said Mrs. Crawford's older sister, Georgianna Hayes.

“She was adult enough to commit a murder but not adult enough to say she's guilty?” Mrs. Hayes asked. “Now, 13 years later, she wants to take that back?”

Jean Mekolites shed a few tears yesterday, emotions she said surfaced after being confronted with her older sister's killer. She said that her family will do whatever they can to keep Northern behind bars to ensure she pays the full penalty for killing Mrs. Crawford.

“Sure, I feel sorry for inmates if they were treated unjustly,” Mrs. Mekolites said. “But I don't want Darlene Crawford to be forgotten by this class action lawsuit that Amy has jumped onto.”

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