Appeals court says Danny Lee Hill unfit for execution

Tribune Chronicle file photo In this photo from March 1, 1986, Trumbull County Jail Administrator Lt. James Reiser moves convicted killer Danny Lee Hill, then 18, out of the Trumbull County Courthouse after he was sentenced to death for the murder of Raymond Fife, 12, at left. An appeals court just overturned Hill’s death sentence.

WARREN — Convicted murderer Danny Lee Hill has an intellectual disability, so he can’t be put to death for the brutal murder of 12-year-old Raymond Fife of Warren in 1985, a federal appeals court ruled.

On Sept. 10, 1985, Raymond was riding his bike to a Boy Scout meeting when he was attacked in a wooded area near Palmyra Road SW. He was beaten, sexually tortured, strangled with his underwear, set afire and left for dead. Fife was barely alive when he was found several hours later by his father and brother-in-law, and he died two days later.

Hill, 18, and Timothy Combs, 17, were arrested and later convicted. Hill was sentenced to death in 1986 and Combs is serving multiple, consecutive life sentences since he wasn’t eligible for the death sentence as a juvenile.

Hill’s death sentence was upheld by an appeals court in 1989, but in 2002, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Atkins v. Virginia that executing people with intellectual disabilities is unconstitutional and a violation of the Eighth Amendment ban on cruel and unusual punishment. At that time, Hill filed the first of many appeals over the course of the next 15 years to have his death sentence overturned.

In 2002, the Trumbull County Prosecutor’s Office, after 15 days of trial, successfully disproved a claim by Hill that he was mentally disabled. In various tests conducted before and after Hill was convicted, his IQ has fluctuated below and above the determining threshold of 70, according to court records.

The U.S. Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals on Friday upheld Hill’s conviction, but reversed a lower court’s decision upholding the death sentence and ordered the case be sent back to Trumbull County Common Pleas Court so Hill could be resentenced.

The federal court ruled that state court judges and mental health experts who declared Hill is not mentally retarded were wrong, and that there is clear and convincing evidence in the record that the defendant is mentally retarded, a ruling that Trumbull County Prosecutor Dennis Watkins strongly disagrees with.

Watkins has requested the Attorney General’s office appeal the decision either to a full panel of judges of the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals or directly to the United States Supreme Court.

“In my view, under the laws and the facts, the federal court decision clearly did not give due respect and deference to Ohio’s judges and courts’ determinations required by federal law,” Watkins said. “Under similar circumstances, the United States Supreme Court has reversed federal appellate courts.”

Miriam Fife, mother of Raymond Fife, said her family is fully supportive of appealing the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals decision and, after more than 30 years, she intends to see the case through until the very end regardless of the outcome.

“Let’s take it to the end and whichever way it works out, that’s the way we’ll accept,” she said.

Fife said she hopes Hill’s case will come to a similar outcome as Jason Getsy, who was sentenced to death in 1996 for the aggravated murder of Ann Serafino of Hubbard and the attempted murder of her son, Chuck. Getsy was executed in 2009 after a lengthy appeals process, which included having his death sentence overturned in 2006 by a three-judge panel of the U.S. Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals, only to be reinstated by a full panel a year later.

The U.S. Sixth Court of Appeals said Hill’s disabilities were extensively documented because he spent all of his school years in programs for the intellectually disabled and in the juvenile justice system. After pleading guilty to rape charges in a separate case before Fife’s murder, the juvenile court placed Hill in a facility that housed youth offenders with mental disabilities and emotional problems, the court wrote.

“The record is replete with comments from teachers concerning Hill’s lagging academic performance, his poor memory, his lack of personal hygiene, his immature and inappropriate behavior in relation to his peers, and his tendencies as a follower,” the court wrote.

Previous attempts by Hill’s attorneys to get a new trial because new bite mark technology became available that wasn’t available during the original trial, and that his confessions should be suppressed, were denied by Visiting Judge Patricia Cosgrove.