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Ohio Supreme Court denies Jacob LaRosa’s appeal

Murder conviction upheld by 4-3 vote

WARREN — The Ohio Supreme Court on Thursday upheld the murder conviction and sentence of Jacob LaRosa in the March 30, 2015, murder of 94-year-old Marie Belcastro of Niles.

The court made its decision in a 4-3 vote.

The court heard a defense motion that claimed some evidence taken from the defendant on the day of the murder had been withheld erroneously. But the high court ruled Trumbull County Common Pleas Judge W. Wyatt McKay did not err in denying the defense motion to suppress the hospital washcloth and scrapings taken from LaRosa’s fingernails.

Four justices — Chief Justice Maureen O’Connor, Patrick Fischer, Patrick DeWine and Sharon Kennedy — concluded the court did err in denying a suppression motion about LaRosa’s socks and underwear, but the four ruled the error did not affect LaRosa’s case.

But three justices — Melody Stewart, Jennifer Brunner and Michael Donnelly — believed the admission of this evidence could have helped LaRosa. The court nevertheless affirmed the decision of Ohio’s 11th District Court of Appeals, which on Jan. 21 ruled LaRosa’s conviction and sentence should stand.

Court documents stated LaRosa, then 15, invaded the 94-year-old’s home, attempted to rape her and beat her to death with a heavy metal flashlight. The beating was so severe the top of her skull and bones in her face were crushed.

Trumbull County Prosecutor Dennis Watkins said the horrific crime scene “lives indelibly in his memory.”

Watkins said “he strongly believes that Judge McKay and the court of appeals were correct under the Fourth Amendment in their decisions” finding all evidence was constitutionally admissible.

Trumbull County Assistant Prosecutor Christopher Becker was delighted after hearing about the high court’s decision on LaRosa’s appeal.

“I am pleased,” Becker said.

An attempt to reach Lynn Maro, one of LaRosa’s attorneys who argued the appeal in front of the high court, was unsuccessful.

McKay sentenced LaRosa in October 2018 to life in prison without parole after the defendant had pleaded guilty to charges of aggravated murder, aggravated burglary, aggravated robbery and attempted rape. In April 2021, however, new legislation went into effect eliminating life-without-parole sentencing for the vast majority of juvenile offenders. Now LaRosa could be eligible for parole after 25 years.

A presentence report also showed LaRosa to be a “very high” risk of recidivism and also stated LaRosa failed to show remorse, repeatedly bragging about his crimes at the time to other inmates at the juvenile justice center.

Becker also voiced his concerns about the new sentencing law for juvenile offenders.

“It remains extremely disappointing that the Ohio Legislature has arbitrarily, capriciously and retroactively changed (LaRosa’s) and other murder sentences by passing Senate Bill 256,” Becker said. “This legislation is benefiting murderers at the expense of victims and their families and also negating the hard work of law enforcement, prosecutors and the courts.”

Belcastro’s grandson, Brian Kirk, traveled across the state last spring advocating to overturn SB 256. He made an appearance at the Trumbull County Courthouse with other Belcastro family members.

The new juvenile sentencing law also affects another Niles murder case — the 1982 slaying of police officer John Utlak by then 17-year-old Fred Joseph, who in late September was denied parole.

Kirk said he will continue to fight for the repeal of SB 256.

“One hundred thirty-two legislators in Columbus simply cannot know better than the judges and juries who are closest to the victims of violent crime,” Kirk said.

Becker also recently testified before a Ohio House Committee speaking out against a proposed repeal of the state’s death penalty law.

Kirk was grateful for the decision by the high court.

“The court was just one vote away from sending this case back to a lower court for review,” Kirk said.

Kirk also thanked attorneys in the prosecutor’s office for their outstanding work in the case.

“Our family is eternally grateful for their passion and expertise,” Kirk said.

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