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Nearly 23 years after first sentencing convicted killer Frederick Dickerson to death, a three-judge panel permanently released him from death row yesterday - a decision that was met with relief by Dickerson's family and with shock by his victims' relatives.
The three judges deliberated for several hours during two days before announcing their decision yesterday in Lucas County Common Pleas Court. The decision was read by visiting Judge Richard Knepper, who said the panel "cannot agree that the aggravating circumstances outweigh the mitigating factors, therefore the death penalty can not be imposed."
They then imposed a life sentence.
Anthony McClain, whose sister Nichole was 15 in 1985 when Dickerson shot her in the face, said his family had been satisfied with the first sentence imposed more than two decades ago. He said he was shocked that it had changed. "After the trial was over we thought it was done. We feel like everything just started all over again," he said of a federal appellate decision two years ago that vacated Dickerson's death sentence.
"I was looking for some closure and the sentence they gave him the first time, I was satisfied with that," he said. "Now, it's like, that's not going to happen. What can I say? It's hard."
Dickerson, now 52, was convicted on Nov. 5, 1985, of the shooting deaths of Nichole McClain and Kevin McCoy, 31, in a Pinewood Avenue apartment. Authorities said he was looking for his estranged girlfriend, Denise Howard, when he broke into the apartment.
He shot Mr. McCoy once in the chest and again in the back of the head. He shot Nichole twice in the face after she could not tell him where Ms. Howard was, authorities said.
Soon after his conviction, a three-judge panel sentenced Dickerson to death.
Those same judges - Judge Knepper, retired Judge George Glasser, and Common Please Judge Charles Doneghy - reviewed the case after the 6th Circuit Court of Appeals in Cincinnati in 2006 upheld the conviction but rejected the trial's death-penalty phase.
According to defense attorney Jeffrey Helmick, the appeals court ruled that Dickerson's trial lawyer had failed to raise relevant mitigating factors during the sentencing hearing, including Dickerson's limited intellectual function and some negative aspects of his childhood. That information was presented to the common pleas judges during a two-day hearing this week, he said.
"The laws have changed in some ways, but we also have more insight into people's intellectual function and how events in their lives play a big role," he said after the hearing. "People are beginning to realize that it really does make a difference."
Mr. Helmick added that his client was "relieved" by the decision.
Dickerson's son, Jevon Howard, said he was glad that "it's all done for now." He said his family has hoped for a decision like this for a long time and was relieved it was finally here.
Mr. Howard, 25, said it was his mother, Denise Howard, for whom Dickerson was looking that day.
He said he knew both victims as a young boy, including his mother's boyfriend, Mr. McCoy, and that both were good people. "I don't want the families to think we don't have remorse for the victims," he said. "I don't want to minimize what happened."
Like the victims' family members, Assistant County Prosecutor Dean Mandros said he was "shocked" by the decision. Part of the original prosecution team for the Dickerson case, Mr. Mandros said the judges apparently believed life in prison was a more appropriate sentence.
Dickerson's new life sentence includes the possibility of parole, but only after he has spent 76 years in prison: 30 years for each aggravated murder conviction, to be served consecutively, plus additional time for gun specifications and a related aggravated burglary conviction.
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