The Star Beacon; Ashtabula, Ohio

July 13, 2013

Cleveland prosecutor examining all capital cases

By ANDREW WELSH-HUGGINS
Associated Press

COLUMBUS — The prosecutor in Ohio’s most populous county isn’t limiting his review of capital punishment to the case of a man scheduled to die next month for fatally stabbing a woman 17 times.

Cuyahoga County Prosecutor Tim McGinty also will examine the death sentences of three other inmates set for execution this year and next.

McGinty, who promised to reduce the number of capital indictments when running for election last year, also will look at the county’s other 18 death row inmates as they receive execution dates. Those include 15 prisoners sentenced to die before life without parole was an option in the state beginning in 1996.

Anyone sentenced before then will be looked at differently, Assistant Cuyahoga County Prosecutor Matthew Meyer said Friday. In addition, the “heinousness” of a killing now plays an important role in McGinty’s approach to capital punishment, he said.

“The office is very much interested in pursuing capital cases as an exception, and not as the rule,” Meyer said.

The county has long been criticized for taking a heavy-handed approach to capital punishment, indicting dozens of defendants a year but then dropping nearly all of them in favor of plea bargains.

Now “We’re really looking at the cases that are essentially the worst we’ve got,” Meyer said. “When we charge a case and commit ourselves to the litigation, we want to make sure the legal system will support it and there’s very good grounds to do so.”

For example, McGinty has left open the possibility of a capital charge against Ariel Castro, accused of kidnapping three women and imprisoning them in his Cleveland home for a decade while he beat and raped them. One of the women told investigators Castro starved and beat her to force her to miscarry; capital charges would in theory cover the alleged death of those fetuses.

McGinty has made the rare move of asking the Ohio Parole Board to recommend mercy for Billy Slagle, set to die next month for the 1987 killing of his neighbor, Mari Anne Pope, while two children she was watching were home.

McGinty argues it would be difficult to get a death sentence today in the case of Slagle because of his age at the time — 18, the minimum age for execution in Ohio — and because of a long history of drug and alcohol addiction.

Three other county defendants are scheduled for execution this year and next.

Harry Mitts Jr., 61, is scheduled to die in September after being convicted of shooting two people, including a Garfield Heights police sergeant, in suburban Cleveland in 1994. Meyer called the facts in the case “just terrible” and said he doesn’t foresee not pushing for execution.

But in the case of Arthur Tyler, Meyer said the office would “be looking very carefully.” The 63-year-old man is scheduled to die in May for the death of Sander Leach as he was selling vegetables from his van on Cleveland’s east side in 1983.

Meyer didn’t address the case of Gregory Lott, 52, who is scheduled to die in March. Lott was convicted of setting fire to John McGrath in his Cleveland home July 15, 1986. McGrath, 84, died days later.

William Caine, a now retired assistant county prosecutor who handled Slagle’s case, is critical of McGinty’s approach. Once an appeals court has ruled, the criminal justice system doesn’t permit “do-overs,” Caine said earlier this week.

“There’s always changes to improve and to clarify statutes,” Caine said. “Does that mean that everybody on death row should get a retrial?”