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Published: Thursday, 8/28/2003

Ohio court orders resentencing of Toledo man

BY JAMES DREW
BLADE COLUMBUS BUREAU CHIEF

COLUMBUS - By a one-vote margin, the Ohio Supreme Court yesterday ordered the resentencing of a Toledo man who received 15 years to life in prison for a 1997 murder and an additional seven years for the aggravated robbery of the murder victim.

Resolving conflicting decisions among state appeals courts, the Supreme Court said state law requires judges to explain their reasons in open court for imposing consecutive sentences and giving a first offender more than a minimum sentence.

In July, 1999, a Lucas County common pleas court jury convicted Jerry Comer of murder and aggravated robbery in the death of Ralph Miller, 23.

Lucas County Common Pleas Court Judge James Bates ordered the sentences to be served consecutively.

At the Aug. 10, 1999, sentencing hearing, Comer's attorney, John Thebes, read a statement from his client in which he continued to deny that he shot Mr. Miller, but he acknowledged he was at the scene of the crime.

At the hearing, Judge Bates did not explain his decision to impose consecutive sentences or give Comer more than the minimum term for the aggravated robbery.

In a journal entry later, Judge Bates wrote: “The court ... finds that the shortest prison term possible will demean the seriousness of the offense and will not adequately protect the public and therefore imposes a greater term.”

Comer appealed. A state appeals court based in Toledo rejected his argument, saying that judges can either explain their decisions at the sentencing hearing or in a judgment entry.

In its decision released yesterday, a 4-3 majority disagreed, saying the 1996 law that overhauled the criminal sentencing code requires the trial court to “state its reasons on the record at the sentencing hearing.”

Those in the majority were Chief Justice Thomas Moyer, justices Francis Sweeney and Paul Pfeifer, and appeals court judge Donna Carr, who sat in for Justice Alice Robie Resnick.

Dissenters were justices Evelyn Stratton and Maureen O'Connor and appeals court Judge Thomas Grady, who sat in for Deborah Cook.

Judge Bates said he does not anticipate yesterday's ruling will affect many inmates other than Comer, who is in a state prison in Chillicothe.

“If the Supreme Court says this is the way we have to do it, that is the way I have to do it,” he said.

Mr. Thebes said he expects “probably the same result when Comer is resentenced.”

“I expect Judge Bates will state his rulings on the record and sentence him accordingly,” he said.

Also yesterday, the Supreme Court upheld the conviction and death penalty of Robert Williams, Jr., who was convicted of aggravated murder, rape, robbery, and burglary in the 1999 strangling of 88-year-old Velma McDowell in a senior citizens complex on Glendale Avenue.

Attorneys for Williams, who is on death row at the state maximum-security prison in Mansfield, cited 20 reasons why his convictions should be overturned.

“The police never threatened or intimidated Williams, and they did not coerce his decision to waive counsel or his Miranda rights,” the Supreme Court stated in its unanimous decision.



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