Wednesday, January 19, 2000

Love passes on jury

3 judges to decide his murder case

The Cincinnati Enquirer

        Instead of taking his case to a jury, accused killer Lance Love will put his life in the hands of three judges.

        Mr. Love took the unusual step Tuesday when he told a judge he no longer wanted 12 randomly selected jurors to decide whether he is guilty of murdering James Osterbrock.

        The move means a three-judge panel will decide Mr. Love's case and, if he is convicted, whether he deserves a death sentence.

        It also means Mr. Love could be moving closer to a plea agreement with prosecutors.

        Under Ohio law, no one facing a possible sentence of death or life in prison can plead guilty without clearing it first with a three-judge panel.

        Neither side would comment, however, on whether Mr. Love's request is a prelude to a plea agreement.

        No matter what happens next, Mr. Love's decision Tuesday was the first of its kind in Hamilton County since 1992.

        “We've had several meetings with him, and he desires to do this,” Mr. Love's attorney, Perry Ancona, said in court Tuesday. “He understands it, and he wants to do it.”

        The last defendant to make such a request was John Fautenberry, a convicted killer who was sentenced to death.

        The request for a panel is rare because most defendants in death penalty cases conclude they are better off with 12 jurors than with three judges.

        In either case, prosecutors must win a unanimous verdict to convict and to get a death sentence.

        Common Pleas Judge Melba Marsh accepted Mr. Love's jury waiver Tuesday after asking him repeatedly if he understood what his decision meant.

        “Yes, ma'am,” Mr. Love answered.

        After the hearing, two other judges were selected at random to sit with Judge Marsh on the panel. They are Judge Norbert Nadel and Judge Richard Niehaus.

        Judge Marsh said the trial will proceed like any other, except the judges will play the part of the jurors.

        “We have the same options as a jury,” she said after the hearing. “The only thing that changes is you've got three judges instead of 12 people in the (jury) box.”

        If Mr. Love is convicted, the possible penalties include death, life without parole, life with parole eligibility after 30 years or life with parole after 20 years.

        If the case ends in a plea of some kind, the judges would be responsible for approving it.

        A spokesman for Mr. Osterbrock's family said he could not discuss the case or whether prosecutors are considering a plea deal.

        “The prosecutor's office has been very considerate,” said Greg Utter, the attorney for the victim's family. “They've kept us informed.”

        Mr. Love was charged with aggravated murder last year after Mr. Osterbrock, 52, was found strangled in the basement of his Liberty Hill home.

        Prosecutors say Mr. Love, 32, who had done repairs at Mr. Osterbrock's house, broke in on May 9 and waited for the victim to come home.

        When he arrived, they say, Mr. Love robbed him of cash, personal items and the keys to his sports-utility vehicle. They say he later took Mr. Osterbrock to the basement and strangled him.

        Mr. Love then led police on a monthlong manhunt before his arrest downtown in June.


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