Homicidal carnage reached drastic levels this year in Summit County.
Veteran law enforcement officers and legal experts say they have never seen anything like it here, both in the number of capital cases — seven are pending in the justice system — and the viciousness of the crimes.
The accused killers took 14 lives, and among the slayings:
• A prominent New Franklin couple was bludgeoned to death in early April during an ambush inside their home on the Portage Lakes.
• Just days later, two young men and two young women were herded into the basement of an Akron townhouse in the Chapel Hill area and shot to death.
• A father and his 20-year-old son were stabbed to death at their home on South Rose Boulevard in August after giving the accused killer a place to live.
Although no one can determine the toll these cases will take on the victims’ families, government resources or the costs taxpayers will bear in the long haul if all of the defendants are convicted and sent to prison, two long-serving crime fighters feel they know why these heinous acts are occurring at such an alarming rate.
Trumbull County Prosecutor Dennis Watkins, who has successfully handled 45 murder trials since entering elected office in 1984 in Warren, said that prolific drug abuse is “the main problem” and that drug laws need to get tougher.
Watkins, 67, said that when he was a young prosecutor, “I put a person in jail for 20 to 40 [years] for selling marijuana.”
“I’m old school. I think that we’re getting too lenient. We’re not tough enough, and I think we’re going to pay a price,” Watkins told the Beacon Journal,
Former Summit County Sheriff Drew Alexander, now retired after 12 years heading the agency and 28 years before that as an officer and commander in the Akron Police Department, said he recalls 40-plus homicides one year in the early 1980s when he was an APD officer.
But he could not recall this many capital cases in the county, “not at one time, not with all seven pending.”
Alexander said he has been asked frequently during community appearances and meetings of the various county boards on which he serves: “Why so much violence?”
“There’s more violence now than I’ve ever witnessed. The gun advocates say they need more guns because of the violence, and the anti-gun people say it’s the guns that are causing it. But I think it’s much deeper than that,” he said.
“I think a lot of it is drug induced. I’m talking hard-core drugs like methamphetamine and heroin,” Alexander said. “There’s more heroin on the streets now, I think, than there’s ever been.”
Alexander said his interactions with his DARE officers from their experiences in the area’s schools also were telling. He said they brought back many sobering stories of youths becoming more deeply involved in drugs, as the only life they know, when they’re lured into gangs.
“And they don’t mind going to prison for it,” Alexander said, “because when they’re in prison, it’s like a badge of honor, like someone pinning a medal on them saying: ‘I’m a gangbanger.’ ”
Alexander said he feels school mentoring programs — “a great tool, I think” — are sorely needed to bring professional role models into the lives of city children. “But the schools,” he said, “don’t even have enough money now to do background [checks] on their own teachers, let alone trying to do something to get a child’s history and try to get that child some help.”
Rise in capital cases
Historically, the counties with the most death-penalty cases are in the state’s largest metropolitan areas of Cuyahoga and Hamilton, retired University of Akron law professor Dean Carro said. Unable to recall anything during his 35-year legal career approaching this year’s seven capital cases in Summit County, he said, “has to put us right up there with them.”
Officials from the Ohio Supreme Court and the state Attorney General’s Office say they do not keep records of the number of capital cases pending in the courts. But the attorney general does keep county-by-county data on the number of capital sentences issued since 1981, when the current statutes were enacted with strict criteria for imposing the death penalty.
Those records show that the last time any county issued seven capital sentences was Hamilton in 1992. The highest number of capital sentences issued before that was eight, in Cuyahoga County in 1987.
Maybe the most telling figures, when compared with Summit’s seven cases this year, are at the opposite end of the spectrum: In 2011 and 2012, three capital sentences were issued each year in the entire state. In 2010, there were only seven all year.
The strain of working, managing and financing seven death-penalty cases simultaneously in Summit County will be huge, Carro said.
“It’s putting pressure in many ways. No. 1, you think about the cost of having two prosecutors, full time, for two or three weeks [of a trial],” he said. “No. 2, you have two private attorneys who have to be paid if it’s an indigent case, and the county budget is already strapped.
“No. 3, from the judicial viewpoint, death-penalty cases are always heavy, always weighty,” Carro said, “because he or she knows this is life or death.”
The judge in such cases must deal with an abundance of complex motions that do not apply to most other cases on the docket, Carro said, “So it reverberates; it really reverberates.”
Taxpayers bear costs
In the case of the New Franklin murders, for example, the two attorneys for the principal defendant, Shawn Eric Ford Jr., 19, had filed 68 defense motions through late November — and a trial date has yet to be scheduled.
Tax dollars, in cases in which the court has declared the defendant indigent, must pay for the two appointed defense lawyers, as mandated by the Ohio Supreme Court. Among the 14 lawyers representing Summit’s seven capital defendants, only one was retained; all the others have been appointed, court records show.
The fees for lawyers appointed in such cases are in the range of $10,000 to $20,000 for each attorney, depending upon whether the case proceeds to trial.
Numerous studies have been done about the tremendous cost that states incur in death-penalty cases, starting from time of arrest until the date of execution. It is not uncommon for many cases to carry on through at least 15 years of mandatory and post-conviction appeals.
Slow road to execution
Watkins, the Trumbull County prosecutor, said it took between 15 to 19 years for the executions to be carried out in the county’s most recent cases: Jason Getsy and Kenneth Biros in 2009, and Roderick Davie in 2010.
Death row inmate Charles “Chucky” Lorraine, who befriended and then murdered an elderly Warren couple, is Watkins’ most recent case to be delayed over a federal judge’s ruling on issues related to lethal injection.
“I tried him in 1986,” Watkins said, “and he hasn’t been executed.”
Several Summit County judges presiding over death-penalty cases have gone on the record during pretrial proceedings, citing nationwide studies that show a single death-penalty case often costs the state at least $1 million from beginning to end.
A 2011 study in California, according to the Death Penalty Information Center in Washington, D.C., revealed that the cost of the death penalty in that state has been more than $4 billion since 1978. In North Carolina, a 2010 Duke University study showed the state could save $11 million per year by substituting life in prison for the death penalty.
No price on justice
Summit County Assistant Prosecutor Brad Gessner, head of the office’s criminal division, said all seven capital cases are being handled by his staff of trial prosecutors, including himself.
The assumption that the cost to local taxpayers will soar this year under such a heavy workload is not necessarily accurate, Gessner said, because the prosecutors are salaried.
Reminded that New Jersey abolished the death penalty in 2007, after findings of a state Policy Perspectives report that capital cases had cost taxpayers $253 million since 1983, Gessner brought up the Summit County case of Ronald Ray Phillips.
He is on death row, awaiting execution next year — after winning a reprieve last month over the issue of organ donation — for the beating, rape and murder 20 years ago of 3-year-old Sheila Marie Evans of Akron.
“Whenever you make the argument, asking, ‘Is it time to get rid of the death penalty?’ ” Gessner said, “I look back to the case I presented to the Ohio Parole Board in which Sheila Marie Evans had over 130 independent, healing bruises on her body, including if you put up both of your arms to make a V in front of your face.
“She was trying to fight off this 19-year-old who beat her over a three-day period and raped her repeatedly. When you look at a case like this, I don’t think you can put a price on justice and the community’s safety.”
Ed Meyer can be reached at 330-996-3784 or firstname.lastname@example.org.