The trial of an Akron man accused of setting two fires that killed nine people has been delayed after an evaluation showed he might have brain damage.
Jury selection in Stanley Ford’s capital trial was scheduled to start Tuesday, with the trial expected to begin in mid-February.
Summit County Common Pleas Judge Christine Croce granted a request from Ford’s attorneys Friday morning to postpone the start of the trial to allow for time for the newly discovered potential mental issues to be explored.
The delay means the start of Ford’s trial likely will be postponed for at least six months, court officials said.
“We appreciate the court’s patience,” Joe Gorman, one of Ford’s attorneys, said during what was supposed to be Ford’s final pretrial Friday morning.
Defense attorneys are requesting that the death penalty be removed from Ford’s case because of the alleged mental issues.
Prosecutors say Ford, 59, 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.
Ford is facing the death penalty and is being held at the Summit County Jail without bond.
Scott Rilley, Ford’s second attorney, and Gorman filed a motion Friday morning that argued executing Ford would be a violation of the Eighth Amendment’s ban on cruel and unusual punishment and excessive sanctions.
The attorneys said an MRI of Ford on Dec. 17 found he has major vascular neurocognitive dementia, resulting in cognitive impairment, and has “irreversible brain damage that will progressively worsen with time,” according to the motion.
The attorneys said the U.S. Supreme Court has prohibited the execution of people who are intellectually disabled and pointed to several rulings by the high court.
Vascular dementia is caused by a reduced blood flow to the brain, often resulting from a stroke or small blood vessel disease. The condition is progressive and has no FDA-approved treatment, according to the motion.
The motion doesn’t say what caused Ford’s condition. The parties are barred from discussing the case because of a gag order.
Psychological testing found a decline in Ford’s “frontal-executive functioning.” Lesions were detected on Ford’s brain, particularly on the frontal lobes that are associated with morality and criminal behavior, the attorneys said.
“Stanley Ford’s mental disability has already begun and will continue in a progressive manner to cause a diminished capacity to understand and process information, to communicate, to learn from experience, to engage in logical reasoning, to control impulses, and to understand the reactions of others,” the attorneys said. “His mental condition will never improve and will continue to deteriorate over the course of time.”
The attorneys included several studies with their motion, including a 2015 study by three doctors that said vascular dementia can cause memory impairment, mood disorders and issues with balance, coordination, problem solving, thinking, reasoning, planning and the ability to perform tasks.
Another study, published in January 2018, found that brain lesions can cause previously normal patients to exhibit criminal behavior. The study points to famous examples of “acquired sociopathy” such as Phineas Gage, who developed antisocial personality changes after an iron rod went through his head, and Charles Whitman, who murdered 16 people following the growth of a brain tumor.
Before Ford was arrested for the arson fires, he had faced no criminal charges for 29 years. Earlier in his life, though, he did run afoul of the law.
When Ford was 18, he and another man were convicted of robbing a man and woman and raping the woman. Ford was sentenced to 15 to 75 years in prison. It’s unclear when Ford was released, but he was charged with drug trafficking in 1988, pleaded guilty and was sentenced to two years in prison.
Since then, besides traffic tickets, Ford was a law-abiding citizen until he was arrested for the fatal arsons in May 2017.
The court had already issued summons to 350 potential jurors and started excusing people because of conflicts. The remaining jurors were expected to answer questionnaires and begin individual questioning on Tuesday.
In court Friday, Croce, Ford and the attorneys had a brief, off-the-record discussion about the attorney’s motion regarding Ford’s alleged mental condition.
When they returned to court, Croce announced that she was continuing the trial. She said the new findings raise factual and legal questions and prosecutors need time to consult their own medical experts. She said she wanted to “ensure a fair and impartial trial.”
Croce ordered that Gorman and Rilley have their experts submit reports by Feb. 1. A status hearing will be held Feb. 15, the same week the trial was scheduled to begin.
The jurors who had been summonsed will be released, with a new pool drawn when the trial proceeds. Information provided by the jurors will be shredded, Croce said.
Croce said Gorman and Rilley kept her and assistant prosecutors Brian LoPrinzi and Joe Dangelo, who is newly appointed to the case, apprised of the medical findings.
“No one has accused that they sat on information,” she said. “This has been a fluid and ongoing process since the third week of December. The defense has been diligent in its effort to bring information to all parties.”
Stephanie Warsmith can be reached at 330-996-3705, firstname.lastname@example.org and on Twitter: @swarsmithabj.