Dodging death for 35 years
Federal judge to hear appeal Dec. 2
WARREN — Trumbull County Prosecutor Dennis Watkins is a tenacious fighter.
His diligence and legal perseverance helped to bring Trumbull County murder suspect Claudia Hoerig from Brazil to justice last year, as she was convicted for the 2007 murder of her husband, war hero Karl Hoerig of Newton Falls.
Watkins said he made history in that case, and he looks for history to strike again on his side when it comes to justice for Raymond Fife and his family.
Watkins was first elected to office in the fall of 1984. At the end of the next summer, the 12-year-old Fife was tortured and murdered. The new prosecutor had made his first big case, seeing guilty verdicts for defendants Danny Lee Hill, then 18, and Timothy Combs, then 17. Now 35 years later, Watkins still seeks final justice in a case that has led a twisted path through legal maneuvers, appeals, resentencing edicts and innovation.
“Justice is a journey. It doesn’t end until it is done,” Watkins said.
Combs is now gone, a victim of a heart attack in prison in late 2018, but Hill still is fighting for his life.
His appeal of the death sentence has now taken him before the full 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Cincinnati.
Watkins said the long road of justice took a turn in 2002 when a Virginia case was decided by the Supreme Court: It ruled that mentally retarded individuals could not be put to death.
The level of Hill’s IQ now was thrust to the center of the legal maneuvers, Watkins said. The decision now showed that the IQ level of mental disability hovered around 70.
Although Watkins remains hopeful justice will be done, he knows this legal battle has reached extra innings.
“It’s not over. This journey for justice can take any length of time. But I feel the appeal line is either ending with this full 6th District or the U.S. Supreme Court,” he said.
The next legal event in the case will be Dec. 2 when oral arguments will be presented before the full 6th U.S. Circuit in Cincinnati.
A lawyer in the Ohio Attorney General’s office said this event will be the “biggest show in town” as all the federal judges will assemble.
Arguing the case for the government will be state Solicitor General Ben Flowers, whom legal experts say has a brilliant young legal mind, and trained as a legal clerk for late U.S. Supreme Court Justice Anton Scalia.
Flowers knows the importance of arguing at this “enbanc” hearing, or before the full court. When he heard the decision, he personally phoned Miriam Fife to let her know.
“He’s such a nice guy,” Fife said. “I don’t know if I am going to go down to the hearing, but they haven’t determined whether or not it will be a teleconference because of COVID-19.”
Fife had gotten to know her way around courtrooms as she served as Watkins’ victim’s rights advocate for 25 years.
“She became a tour de force in the profession,” Watkins said of the grieving mother who turned into chief consoler of the grievers.
As for the Hill case, legal experts believe after the oral arguments the 6th Circuit will move “lightning quick” to get a decision, probably in April or May of 2021.
TWISTS AND TURNS
Retired Trumbull County assistant prosecutor Luwayne Annos, who was in the second chair beside Watkins for many of the state appeals in the Hill case, weighed in on the many legal twists and turns.
“This is a living example of the old adage that justice delayed is justice denied,” Annos said. “I worked in public service for 31 1/2 years, and this case outlasted me.”
Annos said the case moved along in appeals until the Atkins vs. Virginia decision came through in 2002, causing it to be bogged down on the federal level.
“The Ohio courts got this right,” Watkins said.
Annos said it is unfortunate that the Fife family and the entire community has had to wait so long for a final verdict.
“Miriam used to say that Raymond had become everyone’s child,” Annos said. “And here in 2020, that statement remains true.”
When talking about a final resolution Fife could only say: “The justice would have been for Hill and Combs not to be in the woods that day, but rather in the custody of the juvenile justice system. They had been involved in criminal activity for a long time.”
Sept. 10, 1985: 5:15 p.m. — Raymond Fife leaves his Austin Avenue SW home to meet friend Billy Simmons
6 p.m. — Fife is missing after not showing up at Simmons’ Willow Drive SW house
8 p.m. — Fife’s parents file a missing persons report
9:25 p.m. — Fife’s father and brother-in-law find him in a field behind Valu-King supermarket on Palmyra Road SW
Sept. 12, 1985: Raymond Fife dies at St. Joseph Riverside Hospital. Danny Lee Hill goes to Warren Police Department to inquire about a $5,000 reward offered for tips in Fife’s murder.
Sept. 16, 1985: Timothy Combs is arrested at Western Reserve High School. Hill arrested at Warren Police Department.
Jan. 21,1986: Hill’s trial begins.
Jan. 31, 1986: Hill found guilty by three-judge panel.
Feb. 26, 1986: Hill sentenced to 10 to 25 years for aggravated arson and kidnapping, life in jail for rape and felonious sexual penetration and the death penalty for aggravated murder.
April 21, 1986: Combs’ trial begins in Portage County.
May 5, 1986: A jury finds Combs guilty of the crimes.
May 12, 1986: Combs sentenced to 46 years to life in prison.
Nov. 28, 1989: Hill’s death sentence upheld by 11th District Court of Appeals.
April 1, 1993: U.S. Supreme Court rejects Hill’s appeal.
2002: U.S. Supreme Court rules it is cruel and unusual punishment to execute a person with intellectual disabilities (Atkins vs. Virginia case).
2006: Hill claims he is mentally retarded and unfit for execution. A Trumbull County judge ruled otherwise, but Hill appeals.
July 2008: Ohio’s 11th District rules Hill is not mentally retarded.
August 2009: Ohio Supreme Court refuses to hear case.
March 2010: U.S. District judge denies Hill’s motion to halt all challenges to mental retardation claim in federal court.
August 2010: Hill asks for a delay in the execution of a fellow death row inmate so the inmate can testify Hill is retarded. Gov. Ted Strickland grants the inmate, Kevin Keith, clemency in a decision unrelated to Hill.
2014: Hill attorneys want new trial because of innovation in determining bite-mark evidence; federal judge upholds death penalty ruling.
2015: Visiting judge starts hearings with testimony from forensic experts in Trumbull County on whether Hill deserves a new trial because of alleged evidence that bite marks found on Fife did not belong to Hill. U.S. 6th Circuit begins to hear evidence about Hill’s mental retardation claims.
2016: Visiting Judge Patricia Cosgrove rules against Hill on bite-mark issue.
2018: 6th Circuit overturns Hill’s death sentence on retardation claim and ordered he be resentenced. 11th District Court of Appeals sides with Cosgrove in bite-mark issue. Hill’s co-defendant, Timothy Combs, dies in prison at age 50.
2019: U.S. Supreme Court rules there were “deficits” in the appellate court ruling and sends the case back to the 6th Circuit for reconsideration.
2020: After the U.S. Supreme Court in January decided not to give Hill a new trial, three-judge panel from the 6th Circuit later ruled that executing Hill would be unconstitutional because he is intellectually disabled. After subsequent legal maneuvers by prosecutors, the case will now be heard “enbanc,” or before the entire 6th Circuit court, with oral arguments set for Dec. 2 in Cincinnati.