New trial denied in murder case

WARREN – A visiting judge, in a 35-page written decision Monday, denied convicted killer Danny Lee Hill’s bid for a new trial.

Judge Patricia A. Cosgrove delivered the decision personally about noon to administrators of the Trumbull County Common Pleas Court.

The judge ruled that even though she had serious concerns about the scientific reliability of bite mark evidence, the fact that the other evidence against the defendant was “more than sufficient to support Hill’s conviction on aggravated murder and three death penalty specifications.”

County Prosecutor Dennis Watkins, in a written statement, said he is pleased with the ruling.

“The decision … is one of a litany of opinions from various state and federal courts affirming the fairness of the trial and the justice pronounced by the distinguished three-judge panel in 1986,” Watkins wrote.

Federal public defender Vicki Ruth Adams Werneke, one of Hill’s attorneys, said she was disappointed by the decision and plans to appeal.

In January 1986, Hill was convicted by the three-judge panel and later sentenced to death for his part in the Sept. 10, 1985, torture, rape and brutal attack on 12-year-old Raymond Fife, who later died from his injuries.

Hill’s co-defendant, Timothy Combs, was 17 at the time of the killing and not eligible for the death penalty. Combs was sentenced to life in prison after being convicted by a jury in Portage County.

Fife’s mother, Miriam Fife, said on Monday afternoon she hadn’t yet read the judge’s decision but worries that there may be another appeal by Hill’s attorneys.

“I am always excited by a decision in our favor. It sets a precedent for another case that comes down the line,” Fife said. “There have been so many nonsensical appeals in this case. You are supposed to have only so many. There should be a limit to these frivolous motions. I don’t know why the law allows it. “

Fife said she hopes a final decision will come this fall in the U.S. Sixth District Circuit Court over Hill’s appeal to stay his execution based on his IQ being below 70, which is the level of mental retardation. A hearing is set for Nov. 30 in that Cincinnati courtroom.

Watkins said he will have no other comment because of the pending action on the case in the Sixth Circuit court and a possible appeal of Cosgrove’s decision.

Cosgrove, before rending an opinion on the bite-mark issue, said she spent extensive time reviewing everything in the Hill case, including videos of his interrogation with police following the murder. The judge also reviewed case law from Ohio as well as from other jurisdiction, including the testimony from a Dec. 21 evidentiary hearing on the defense’s motion to file a motion for new trial.

On June 7, Cosgrove had ruled that Hill’s attorneys could file a motion for a new trial. The judge said she had based this decision in part on the testimony of Dennis Terez, a federal public defender who had testified about the complexity and protracted process to file a motion for new trial in state court.

On June 13, Hill’s attorney had filed a new motion for new trial, but Cosgrove noted that defense had “expanded the grounds” beyond the bite mark issue to include interrogation techniques used by police, the mental capacity claims and arguments regarding the admission of a stick found at the crime scene.

Since that motion, both sides had been trading motions in efforts to sway the judge. In its motion filed Sept. 21, the defense cited a report from the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology that struck at the reliability of bite-mark evidence.

gvogrin@tribtoday.com