Friday, June 30, 2000

Victim's family wants killer's windfall

They win wrongful-death suit, he later wins $50,000; is it theirs?

By Dan Horn
The Cincinnati Enquirer

As a convicted killer serving a life sentence, Johnny Lee Fryman doesn't know what he will do with the $50,000 he won recently in a court settlement.

He's thought about using it to pay his lawyers or to buy snacks and cigarettes at the prison commissary.

One thing he won't do is give it to his victim's family.

Mr. Fryman's lawyers will be in a Cincinnati court today to argue that the relatives of his victim, Monica Lemen, are not entitled to his share of a settlement from the Lucasville prison riot.

The relatives claim they should get the money because they won a $1 million wrongful-death lawsuit against him years ago.

Mr. Fryman, who was injured in the 1993 prison riot, says the suit does not apply to the money he received as compensation.

"He would like to keep it,'' said Mr. Fryman's lawyer, Richard Swope.

The debate over whether he can is part of a national controversy about the right of inmates to collect cash windfalls that come their way while they are in prison.

Some states have enacted ""Son of Sam'' laws, a reference to New York serial killer David Berkowitz, to prevent criminals from profiting from the sale of books or movies about their crimes.

Others, like Ohio, have aggressively pursued inmate money regardless of the source.

Ohio's Attorney General, Betty Montgomery, recently created a task force to chase down court fees, victim damage awards and other debts owed by inmates who suddenly find themselves swimming in cash.

"We want to ensure that before they collect a penny, they've paid their debt to society,'' said Chris Davey, spokesman for the attorney general. "This has been increasingly applied around the country.''

In Mr. Fryman's case, it was the victim's relatives who made the first move for compensation.

They filed a wrongful-death lawsuit against him in 1988, shortly after a Butler County jury convicted him of one of Greater Cincinnati's most notorious murders.

A judge awarded the family $1 million after concluding Mr. Fryman had caused the death of Ms. Lemen in 1987 by "violent and unprovoked acts.''

Those acts included killing the 21-year-old Price Hill woman, severing her legs and hiding her body.

Her legs were found behind a church in Indiana. The remainder of her body never was found.

Although Ms. Lemen's family won the wrongful-death case, it was little more than a moral victory because Mr. Fryman had no assets to seize.

That changed, however, when he became part of the $4.1 million settlement involving inmates hurt in the Lucasville riot.

After receiving the award, Mr. Lemen began arguing that he was never properly notified of the Lemen family's wrongful-death lawsuit in Hamilton County.

He also said in a letter that he believed the lawsuit had "grown dormant under Ohio law,'' meaning the judge's order should no longer apply.

Neither Ms. Lemen's relatives nor their attorney could be reached for comment Thursday.

But in a court document filed this week they argued that the wrongful death judgment is valid and Mr. Fryman must hand over the money.

Common Pleas Judge Norbert Nadel said he will meet with attorneys for both sides today. It will be up to him to decide what happens to Mr. Fryman's money.

Mr. Swope said he understands the Lemen family's position. "They want the money, and I don't blame them,'' he said. "They think they have a valid judgment.''

But he also said courts should not disregard an inmate's right to money simply because he is in prison.

He said Ohio's prisons are obligated to provide basic care and protection to inmates. And when they don't, he said, those inmates are entitled to compensation.

He said Mr. Fryman was nearly killed in the early hours of the riot when fellow inmates beat him, stabbed him, rolled him into a carpet and left him for dead in the recreation yard. "He's very lucky to be alive,'' Mr. Swope said.

He said his client has told him he may use the money to pay his attorneys, stock his commissary account and help support some family members.

But in their claim against him, Ms. Lemen's parents said the murder of their daughter means Mr. Fryman owes more to them than to anyone.

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