An Akron man accused of setting fires that left nine of his neighbors dead will have only one capital trial, not two.
Summit County Common Pleas Judge Christine Croce denied a request from defense attorneys that Stanley Ford be tried separately for the fatal fires.
“This court does not find a serious risk that a joint trial of the three arsons would prevent the jury from making a reliable judgment about guilt or innocence,” Croce said in her ruling, released Thursday.
Ford, 59, was indicted last July on 29 charges, including 22 counts of aggravated murder, and faces the death penalty. The murder charges involve different parts of the law under which Ford was charged. He is being held at the Summit County Jail without bond.
Investigators say Ford set three fires in his neighborhood, with two people killed in one fire and seven — including five children — perishing in the other. The third was a car fire with no injuries.
In each case, prosecutors say Ford had a “beef” with his neighbors.
Defense attorneys Scott Rilley and Joe Gorman filed a motion to sever the cases in May arguing the two fatal arson cases are “separate and distinct” and trying the cases together would violate Ford’s due process rights. They pointed to studies that looked at the impact of a trial with joined charges on the jury’s perception of the defendant.
Prosecutors, however, said the arsons are similar and part of a “common scheme or plan,” which means they can be tried together. They also said having one trial would save time and money.
Croce sided with prosecutors, saying they overcame the defense’s claim of prejudice by pointing out the evidence presented in the trial “relates to different victims in different dates at different locations and can reasonably be separated as to each offense.”
Croce also has denied a request from Ford’s attorneys to dismiss the death penalty specification because of alleged racial and geographical bias.
Defense attorneys asked Croce to remove the death penalty specifications because of the role they say race played in the decision to seek capital punishment. They cited research that shows the race of defendants and victims and where crimes are committed in Ohio play a key role in deciding whether defendants face the death penalty.
The attorneys also pointed to former Akron Police Chief James Nice’s alleged racial bias, which was among the issues raised when Nice resigned in August 2017. Nice was the chief when Ford’s case was investigated and was among those who spoke at a news conference to announce Ford’s indictment.
Croce said in her ruling that Nice had no input in regard to the charges filed against Ford. She said the study cited by defense attorneys “does not show that racial motivation influence the decision” on charges against Ford.
Croce, however, said the attorneys may raise the racial bias issue again if they find additional evidence to support their claim.
During a hearing Friday morning, Croce and the attorneys discussed deadlines for objections on the wording of jury questionnaires and expert defense reports.
Croce checked in with Ford to make sure he was satisfied with his attorneys and was being treated well at the jail.
“Everything is all good,” he told her.
The next pretrial is scheduled for Dec. 19. Jury selection will begin Jan. 15, with the trial set to start Feb. 11. It’s expected to last six weeks.
Stephanie Warsmith can be reached at 330-996-3705, firstname.lastname@example.org and on Twitter: @swarsmithabj.