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Law would create even more loopholes

It’s not unusual for criminal defendants — especially those facing the death penalty — to claim they were suffering from a mental deficiency when they committed a serious crime.

Sadly, we’ve heard it over and over again in different forms of appeal from well-known Trumbull County defendants like Danny Lee Hill, Andre Williams, Charles Lorraine and others.

Each of these defendants was found competent to stand trial initially and many have gone on to exhaust other appeals based on Atkins claims — that bar execution of convicted killers who have measured intellectual disability — and other mental disability issues. Clearly, the court system and appeals process contains years worth of options allowing defendants to challenge their criminal convictions based on their intellectual and mental capacity at the time of the crime.

So why, then, should Ohio’s legislators even consider creating new opportunities for even more appeals of death row cases — ones that already have been backlogged for years?

Ohio statehouse members this month voted 76-18 to eliminate the death penalty for offenders diagnosed by a professional with schizophrenia, schizoaffective disorder, bipolar disorder or delusional disorder. Perhaps the most controversial part of the legislation comes in its language that allows previously convicted death row inmates the opportunity to seek resentencing to life in prison without parole.

Among local state representatives, Michael O’Brien, D-Warren, and Gil Blair, D-Weathersfield, voted no.

Mahoning County representatives, Don Manning, R-New Middletown, and Michele Lepore-Hagan, D-Youngstown, voted yes.

Murderers like Danny Lee Hill and Charles Lorraine, who brutally assaulted and slayed feeble victims and were rightfully convicted for their actions, now make it their life’s work to fight the conviction and death sentence.

Their attorneys do, too. When the state of Ohio scheduled Lorraine’s execution date about a year ago, one of his attorneys said he would continue to work to prevent Lorraine from being executed.

That’s his job, after all.

And that’s why offering a new appeal option for death row inmates will all but guarantee every one of the 138 killers on Ohio’s death row will initiate new appeal attempts.

Some opponents of the bill, including Trumbull County Prosecutor Dennis Watkins, believe the retroactive provision will open the floodgates for new appeals.

The Ohio Prosecuting Attorneys Association suggests the bill is so broad it “effectively ends the death penalty” in Ohio and is “absolutely not necessary” to address any problem with state law.

Blair, a new state representative who previously served for years as a local prosecutor, said it was the retroactive application of the bill that triggered his biggest opposition to it.

“The problem with retroactivity with a 25-, 30-year-old criminal case is witnesses are gone and trying to determine the mental state of the defendant at that time,” Blair told us.

State Rep. O’Brien summed up his opposition to the bill in two words: “Danny Hill.”

Danny Lee Hill, who committed perhaps the most heinous crime ever in Trumbull County, has remained on death row for more than 30 years. Hill was sentenced to death in 1986 after being convicted of torturing, raping and murdering Raymond Fife, 12, in Warren.

Hill has failed in appeal after appeal over his mental capacity and claims he should not be put to death. Most recently, the U.S. Supreme Court overturned an appeals court ruling that removed Hill from death row based on his intellectual disability claims.

While his ongoing appeals may trigger the most rage among victim advocates in Trumbull County, sadly, it’s not the only egregious case.

Charles Lorraine is convicted of using a butcher’s knife in 1986 to stab Raymond Montgomery five times and Doris Montgomery nine times, during a robbery.

Lorraine, too, has filed multiple appeals. As he walked out of court following a 2010 appeal based on his mental capacity, he told a member of the local media, “I’ll say and do whatever I need to do to stay alive. I am not mentally retarded.”

The new legislation now moves on to the Ohio Senate where we hope it will be defeated. And if it is not, we hope that lawmakers will have the common sense, at least, to remove the retroactive clause.

No new loopholes are needed for additional hearings or defenses on mental health issues in which protections for defendants already exist.

editorial@tribtoday.com

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