Death penalty back on the table for Danny Lee Hill

Supreme Court overturns ruling that removed convicted murderer from death row

Tribune Chronicle / Renee Fox Trumbull County Prosecutor Dennis Watkins, left, and Miriam Fife, the mother of murder victim Raymond Fife, discuss a decision by the U.S. Supreme Court on Monday that could lead to the reimposition of the death penalty for Fife’s killer, Danny Lee Hill.

WARREN — The death penalty is back on the table for Danny Lee Hill, who was sentenced to die more than 30 years ago for murdering and torturing a Warren boy.

The U.S. Supreme Court on Monday overturned a U.S. Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals ruling that removed Hill from death row on claims he is intellectually disabled, according to an opinion issued by the high court. The case heads back to the Sixth Circuit, where a three-judge panel is expected to issue a new opinion in three to six months, said Trumbull County Prosecutor Dennis Watkins.

“It was my strong belief that the (Sixth Circuit) court got it wrong,” Watkins said.

Hill was sentenced to death in 1986 after being convicted of torturing, raping and murdering Raymond Fife, 12, in Warren. Hill was 18 when Fife was killed.

The ruling seems to be the first time the highest court in the country has issued a full opinion for a criminal case in Trumbull County, Watkins said.

“It was against all odds,” Watkins said, because the court typically hears only 1 percent of the cases brought to it.

Since his conviction, Hill has argued he shouldn’t be put to death because of intellectual disabilities, but failed in other hearings until the federal appeals court in February ruled in his favor.

After several conferences on the case, the Supreme Court ruled the appeals court applied precedent established long after Hill’s conviction when it overturned his death sentence.

The Sixth Circuit was ordered to reconsider Hill’s claim regarding intellectual disability by evaluating his case “based solely on holdings of this court that were clearly established at the relevant time,” the opinion states.

Other hearings have found Hill does not meet the criteria to avoid the death penalty.

It is not the end of the case. The Sixth Circuit could find a different reason the death penalty shouldn’t be applied to Hill.

“Justice is a journey and it doesn’t end until it is all done,” Watkins said. And it is “unfair” to let it go on as long as it has. But, Watkins said, he is optimistic the court will reimpose the death sentence after taking instruction from the Supreme Court’s opinion.

Miriam Fife, Raymond’s mother, said the news Monday put a smile on her face and raised her heart rate.

“Let’s get this over with,” she said.

If the death sentence is reimposed, Fife and Watkins said they would both personally attend the execution.

“Even if (Watkins) is pushing me in a wheel chair,” Fife, 78, said.

Fife said she hopes the way the case unfolded, as hard as it has been on her and her family, that some of the precedents set in it will help the families of future crime victims. She worked as a victims’ advocate for decades after her son’s death. And though she is now retired, she continues to support other victims of crime, including the women assaulted by Hill before her son’s murder.

“I’ll be on the phone with them later tonight,” Fife said.