Hill defense team asks for disqualification

Says prosecutor’s office has close relationship with victim’s mother

WARREN — Attorneys for convicted killer Danny Lee Hill have asked that the Trumbull County’s prosecutor’s office be disqualified to argue the 2016 appeal of a visiting judge who denied the death row inmate’s bid for a new trial.

Attorneys for Hill, in a motion filed in late February, cited the prosecutor’s office close relationship with the victim’s mother, Miriam Fife, and the fact that Hill’s former trial attorney was hired by the prosecutor’s office in January 2013.

The defense, in a motion written by assistant Federal Public Defender Vicki Ruth Adams Werneke, is asking a special prosecutor be assigned to the appeal.

The appeal and motions are before Ohio’s 11th District Court of Appeals.

Prosecutor Dennis Watkins and his assistant LuWayne Annos, in answering the defense, said the motion is merely a play into the “game plan to forestall Hill’s inevitable execution for even more time.

“As a pure practical matter, the added expense to transfer this case at this juncture to some unnamed special prosecutor, who would be forced to learn this 31-year-old case, would be astronomical,” Watkins wrote.

As for former defense attorney James Lewis’ relationship to the case, Watkins wrote Lewis has been divorced from the Hill case for more than three decades and has no dealings with criminal cases in the prosecutor’s office. Lewis retired as a public defender in 2012.

As for the Fife issue, the defendant’s motion said Mrs. Fife is entitled to feel how she does toward Mr. Hill as she sees him as the person who was responsible for the horrific murder of her son. But those feelings create an intolerable conflict with the Trumbull County Prosecutor’s Office,” which has made it impossible for the prosecutor to review through an objective lens,” the defense motion stated.

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.

Retired Summit County Judge Patricia A. Cosgrove on Oct. 3, 2016, ruled that even though she had serious concerns about the scientific reliability of bite mark evidence, other evidence against the defendant was “more than sufficient to support Hill’s conviction on aggravated murder and three death penalty specifications.” Hill’s lawyers shortly thereafter appealed the decision.

On June 7, 2016, Cosgrove ruled that Hill’s attorneys could file a motion for a new trial strictly around newly discovered science in investigating bite mark evidence. However in her decision, the judge noted the defense had improperly “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.