COLUMBUS - The Ohio Supreme Court yesterday unanimously upheld the conviction and death sentence of Toledo native James Were for orchestrating the murder of a prison guard during the 1993 Lucasville riot.
"[Were] helped remove Officer [Robert] Vallandingham from the bathroom where he was hiding and took him to the L-6 cellblock, where he was locked up," Justice Paul Pfeifer wrote. "On April 15, 1993, Were advocated that a prison guard be killed to demonstrate that the inmates' demands should be taken seriously.
"Were then supervised the group of inmates who strangled Vallangingham in the L-6 shower," he wrote. "These facts establish a horrific crime without any mitigating factors."
Were, 51, was serving time on Lucas County aggravated robbery convictions and a Richland County felonious assault conviction when the riot began at the Southern Ohio Correctional Institution in Lucasville. He was convicted of kidnapping and two counts of aggravated murder in Mr. Vanlandingham's death.
A Muslim gang of which he was a leader launched the riot on April 11, 1993, and they were soon joined by members of the Aryan Brotherhood and the Black Gangster Disciples. The riot involved eight cellblocks containing 80 cells each.
The last hostages were released April 21, 1993, but by then nine inmates were dead in addition to Officer Vallandingham.
"You can come get your boy He's out there, and you didn't take us serious. And from this point on you'll take us serious," an inmate testified he heard Were say as another inmate talked to negotiators on the phone.
A listening device installed by police in tunnels running under the cellblock captured Were on tape during a meeting of the inmates.
"If we have to throw another body, it will let people know the hard-liners will put their foot down ," he said. "I don't give a damn, you understand, if some of the hostages die slow, or die at all, if I have to die, or we have to die ..."
Were is one of the so-called "Lucasville Five" convicted and facing death sentences in connection with the riot. The others are Carlos Sanders, Keith Lamar, Jason Robb, and George Skatzes.
"[A prison guard] is a very dangerous, low-paying, thankless job, and Vallandingham, even if you talked to the prisoners, was not recognized as one of the guards who was nasty to them," said Mark W. Piepmeier, the Hamilton County assistant prosecutor who served as lead Lucasville prosecutor.
"He was actually one of the guys who treated them like human beings, and to be executed to make a point tells you why we need the death penalty," he said.
The state Supreme Court overturned Were's conviction in 2003 because the trial court failed to hold a competency hearing. Upon retrial, Hamilton County Common Pleas Court held two hearings. It found Were competent to stand trial, despite defense testimony that he had a tested IQ in the mildly retarded range.
Were was convicted a second time and the jury again recommended death.
Were's appeals attorney, E. Fred Hoefle, said he is likely to ask the U.S. Supreme Court to hear an appeal, particularly on the question of mental retardation.
The high court ruled in 2002 that it is unconstitutional to execute the mentally retarded.
At a young age, Were tested at an IQ of 69, just below the threshold of 70 that can be one indicator of retardation. Were is on death row at the Ohio State Penitentiary in Youngstown.
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