Tuesday, August 14, 2001

Condemned killer asks for clemency

Byrd due to die next month

By Spencer Hunt
Enquirer Columbus Bureau

        COLUMBUS — Death row inmate John W. Byrd Jr.'s attorneys asked Ohio Gov. Bob Taft to spare his life, saying Mr. Byrd is a robber, not a killer.

        The Ohio Public Defender filed a clemency petition Monday with state parole officials. It comes a month before Mr. Byrd, 37, is to be executed for murdering a convenience store clerk in 1983.

        Attorney Stephen Ferrell hopes Mr. Byrd's claims of innocence and of an unfair trial will sway Mr. Taft and Ohioans.

        “I really want these facts to trouble everyone,” Mr. Ferrell said.

        As lawyers on both sides make the final legal moves before the scheduled Sept. 12 execution, a parallel fight for public opinion is heating up.

        Last week, a rally on Fountain Square urged clemency for Mr. Byrd. On Sunday, Hamilton County prosecutors handed out a dozen threatening letters they said Mr. Byrd wrote from death row.

        On Monday, Hamilton County Prosecutor Mike Allen said he will ask the Ohio Parole Board to open its normally closed clemency hearing to the public. The prosecutor's Web site also is encouraging people to e-mail statements opposing clemency.

        A Hamilton County jury convicted Mr. Byrd for the 1983 stabbing death of Colerain Township convenience store clerk Monte Tewksbury. The father of three bled to death after he was robbed of his wedding ring, watch, cash and credit cards. Robbers took $134 from the cash register.

        Mr. Byrd's plea for clemency asks the governor to commute his death sentence to life imprisonment. It hinges on two sworn statements from John Brewer, an accomplice who says he stabbed Mr. Tewksbury.

        The mercy plea also attacks Ronald Armstead, a jailhouse informant who testified Mr. Byrd bragged about the murder. Public defenders say Mr. Armstead made up the story to escape going back to prison on a parole violation.

        State and federal courts have rejected appeals challenging Mr. Armstead's testimony. A state appeals court heard arguments about Mr. Brewer's confession Monday morning.

        “They're grasping at straws at this point,” Mr. Allen said of the defense.

        State and federal courts have ruled the jury was not improperly swayed to believe Mr. Armstead, Mr. Allen said.

        Mr. Allen called Mr. Brewer's confession to the murder unbelievable. Sentenced to life for his own part in the crime, Mr. Brewer cannot be tried again.

        The clemency papers try to offer a more sympathetic picture of Mr. Byrd as a victim of child abuse.

        The applicationdescribes Mr. Byrd as a man who has “matured” on Ohio's death row, giving up violent behaviors that marred his early prison record.

        Mr. Allen wants the Parole Board to open its Monday clemency hearing to reporters and television cameras.

        Visitors to the prosecutor's Web site, www.hcpros.org, can e-mail opinions to Mr. Allen through the “Parole Watch” Web page.

        The threatening letters will doubtless form another part of Mr. Allen's effort to thwart clemency.

        Where those letters are concerned, Mr.Ferrell said Mr. Byrd never has admitted he wrote any. Mr. Allen said he's certain Mr. Byrd was the author.

        “They were found in his (prison) file. He identifies himself in the letters,” Mr. Allen said. “They're his handwriting. It's him.”

        Marie McCain contributed to this report.

       Byrd appeals death sentence

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