Tuesday, August 21, 2001

Life and death pleas for killer

Emotions run high at Byrd's clemency hearing

By Spencer Hunt
Enquirer Columbus Bureau

John Byrd's mother, Mary Ray (with daughter Kim Hamer) pleaded for her son to be spared.
(Glenn Hartong photos)
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        COLUMBUS — With a voice strained from crying, the mother of condemned killer John W. Byrd Jr. on Monday begged the Ohio Parole Board to spare her son's life.

        “Members of the board, I plead — I beg my body, my mind, my soul,” said Mary Ray, who is wheelchair-bound after several recent strokes. “Please don't let them execute my baby.”

        Mrs. Ray's comments punctuated a clemency hearing filled with emotional testimony opposing and supporting Mr. Byrd's Sept. 12 execution.

        The board is to recommend either death or a commuted life sentence to Gov. Bob Taft on Friday.

        More than 18 years have passed since a Hamilton County court sent Mr. Byrd to death row for stabbing Colerain Township convenience store clerk Monte Tewksbury during a robbery. Mr. Tewksbury bled to death in his wife's arms while waiting for an ambulance and the police.

Hamilton County prosecutor Mike Allen sits with murder victim Monte Tewksbury's daughter Kimberly and widow Sharon.
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        Though Mr. Byrd now claims an accomplice did it, Sharon Tewksbury told the board she is certain Mr. Byrd killed her husband.

        “He bragged about it 18 years ago,” said Mrs. Tewksbury, who at times had tears of her own. “I ask only that this sentence, handed down 18 years ago, be carried out.”

        While emotional arguments took center stage, clemency for Mr. Byrd hinges on two sworn confessions from John Brewer, an accomplice. Mr. Brewer says he stabbed Mr. Tewksbury after a scuffle behind the counter.

        “He has no reason to defend me,” Mr. Byrd said of Mr. Brewer in an interview on WBNS TV in Columbus, which aired after Monday's hearing. The station was awarded the exclusive interview by the Ohio Public Defender's Office. “Maybe his conscience started getting to him. I honestly can't say,” Mr. Byrd said.

        Gregory Meyers, one of Mr. Byrd's public defenders, says those confessions and questions concerning the honesty of a jailhouse informant should raise “grave doubts” about the 1983 conviction.

        “This case ought to leave you queasy as to whether we as a state can execute John W. Byrd in the death chamber,” Mr. Meyers told the 11 gathered board members. “The man who stabbed Monte Tewksbury is not the man on death row.”

        With no fingerprints or an eyewitness, Mr. Meyers said prosecutors relied on statements from Ronald Armstead. The Hamilton County jail inmate testified Mr. Byrd bragged about the killing while both were behind bars.

        Mr. Meyers said Mr. Armstead made up the story hoping to escape prison time for a parole violation.

        Hamilton County Prosecutor Mike Allen angrily defended his office and its conviction.

        “It was a strong case in 1983,” Mr. Allen said. “It's even a stronger case now with all we've learned.”

        Mr. Allen said the confessions are unbelievable because Mr. Brewer, who is imprisoned for life, knows he cannot be tried again. The prosecutor also questioned why the public defender's office waited years to release Mr. Brewer's 1989 confession.

        “They want to delay this case as long as they can,” Mr. Allen said. “They're doing this for tactical reasons.”

        Where Mr. Armstead was concerned, Mr. Allen said more than 70 judges at six state and federal courts have reviewed the case and had no problems with what he said.

        Sparks flew between both legal camps over a never-before-seen statement from the third accomplice to the crime, get-away driver William Woodall.

        The Public Defenders office unveiled Monday a 1993 affidavit in which Mr. Woodall supports Mr. Brewer's murder confession. Before dying of cancer earlier this year, Mr. Woodall told prosecutors that Mr. Brewer's confession was false.

        Mr. Meyers said they decided to include Mr. Woodall's statement to show he is not a credible witness. Mr. Allen angrily said prosecutors would be charged with misconduct if they had concealed similar evidence.

        Board members had similar questions for Mr. Byrd's attorneys. William E. Hudson wanted to know why public defenders held onto Mr. Brewer's confession for so long.

        “Isn't that kind of powerful stuff?” he asked.

        Richard Vickers, the public defender who took Mr. Brewer's 1989 confession, said he decided not to use it because he thought he could win a new trial by challenging Mr. Armstead's credibility.

        “It was a decision I made. It was a mistake,” Mr. Vickers said.

        Though many parts of this case are nearly two decades old, grief and suffering by family members on both sides of the crime seemed new and palpable.

        Monte Tewksbury's daughter, Kimberly Tewksbury, talked about how tired she was and how the case has dragged on.

        “This needs to be over; completely over,” Ms. Tewksbury said. “This has been in our face for 18 years.”

        Outside the hearing room, Kim Hamer, Mr. Byrd's sister, said she's certain the wrong man is on death row.

        Said Ms. Hamer: “My brother is innocent and they're going to execute an innocent man.”


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