Monday, April 7, 2003

Prison rioting cases linger

A decade later, 5 still fighting death penalty

By Sharon Turco
The Cincinnati Enquirer

Ten years later, the criminal cases stemming from the long, bloody riot at the Southern Ohio Correctional Facility still linger in courtrooms across southern Ohio.

The Ohio Supreme Court recently overturned a murder conviction that carried the death penalty against James Were, one of 11 inmates accused of kidnapping and killing corrections officer Robert Vallandingham 10 years ago this month. Were's case starts over in Hamilton County Common Pleas Court later this month.

1993 Lucasville riot
mark wisherBesides Vallandingham, nine inmates were slain during 11 days of rioting touched off by overcrowding, and gang and racial tension.

"These are life and death cases," said former Hamilton County Prosecutor Joe Deters, who is now Ohio treasurer. "That doesn't surprise me."

Though the riots unfolded 110 miles east of Hamilton County, the prosecutor's office here ran the most successful prison riot prosecution ever.

That's because immediately after the uprising ended on April 21, 1993, Lynn Grimshaw, prosecutor in Scioto County, where Southern Ohio Correctional Facility is located, called Deters and asked for help.

"He said, 'There is no way we can handle this,' " Deters said. "They only had three or four assistant prosecutors."

Hamilton County had dozens.

"We were chosen because of our reputation," Deters said. "It involved death penalty cases and we had the best record with death penalty cases."

To oversee the prosecutions, Deters chose Mark Piepmeier, who had prosecuted 15 death-penalty cases in his 12 years as an assistant prosecutor.

Piepmeier oversaw 20 prosecutors, who handled 50 trials, which resulted in 47 convictions.

Six counties hosted the trials and partnerships were formed between the Ohio State Highway Patrol, the special prosecutors, sheriffs, courts and the Department of Rehabilitation and Correction.

"It's been a great challenge," Piepmeier said. "With the number of appeals, it's never gone away."

He and Seth Tieger - another assistant Hamilton County prosecutor, who oversaw trials of inmates who killed other inmates during the first days of the riots - spent every day at the prison for the first year after the riots. They left home before dawn and got back after dark.

Trips to the prison happen only occasionally now, and Piepmeier has mostly returned to prosecuting cases in Hamilton County.

Five inmates face the death penalty, four for Vallandingham's death.

Another prisoner, Anthony Lavelle, pleaded guilty and was given a lesser sentence in exchange for testifying against the others.

The fifth person sentenced to die is accused of killing four inmates, but played no role in the officer's death.

  In addition to the correction officer, Robert Vallandingham, who was killed during the Lucasville riots, nine inmates also were slain. They are:
• Darell Dapina, 35
• Earl M. Elder, 41
• Franklin Farrell, 49
• William Svette, 69
• Bruce A. Vitale Jr., 38
• Albert C. Stalano, 40
• Bruce E. Harris, 35
• David S. Sommers, 31
• Dennis Weaver, 53.
The key to winning convictions was eroding the loyalty and fear inmates felt toward their gangs, according to a 1997 article written by directors of the correction department.

Piepmeier and his staff targeted a few gang members and convinced them to accept plea bargains. Thirteen months into the investigation, Lavelle, one of a handful of riot leaders, agreed to talk about Vallandingham's death. His testimony led to death sentences for other leaders.

Those facing the death penalty:

• Were, 46: Sentenced to death in Hamilton County for Vallandingham's death, however last spring the Supreme Court overturned his conviction, saying he was unfairly denied a competency hearing. His trial begins April 28. He is being held in the Hamilton County Justice Center.

• Carlos Sanders, 40: Was tried in Hamilton County for the murder of Vallandingham and prisoner Bruce Harris. A jury acquitted him on charges relating to Harris, but sentenced him to death for killing Vallandingham. He has exhausted all state appeals and plans to take his case to federal court. He is being held in the Ohio State Penitentiary in Youngstown.

• Jason Robb, 35: Sentenced to die in Franklin County for Vallandingham's death and for killing prisoner David Sommers. He exhausted all state appeals and has taken his case to federal court. He is being held in the Ohio State Penitentiary.

• George Skatzes, 57: Was convicted in Montgomery County of killing Vallandingham and prisoners Sommers and Earl Elder. He was sentenced to death for murdering Elder and Sommers , but was sentenced to spend 30 years in prison without parole for Vallandingham's death. His first appeal was not granted. He is being held on Death Row at Mansfield Correctional Institution.

• Keith Lamar, 33: Was sentenced to death in Lawrence County for killing four prisoners. Lamar's appeal was denied, and his attorney said she is preparing to file a post-conviction petition in federal court. He is being held in the Ohio State Penitentiary.

Many cases were tried elsewhere because defense attorneys argued that getting a fair trial in the prison town would be impossible.

Prosecution criticized

Some have criticized the prosecution of the inmates.

A researcher said he has found several inconsistencies in the trials of those convicted of killing Vallandingham. And Niki Schwartz, the Cleveland attorney who helped negotiate the riot settlement, said the prosecution had a decisive advantage because they had more money to spend on making their case.

Defense attorneys were paid a standard hourly rate for public defenders even though the cases were complicated, high-stakes trials that required many extra hours of work.

Prosecutors had access to investigators from the FBI, the police and the highway patrol, while defense attorneys often were left to do investigative work on their own. Prosecutors also had a computer database, thousands of crime scene photos and forensics experts on their side.

"The prosecution was armed with nuclear weaponry," Schwartz said. "The process was not a fair one."

Staughton Lynd, a Niles, Ohio, attorney and radical historian, has spent the last six years researching Vallandingham's death. He says the five men convicted of killing him deserve new trials.

"There is a pervasive carelessness in the representation of facts by prosecutors and courts throughout the Lucasville trials," Lynd asserts in a never-published paper, "Who Killed Officer Vallandingham?"

Vallandingham, 40, was found strangled on the fourth day of the standoff.

Lynd's theory, culled after pouring over thousands of pages of court documents from each of the men's trials, is that Lavelle and two masked men killed Vallandingham.

"(Lavelle) acted on his own, not after a vote (of rebel inmate leadership) was taken," Lynd said. Another problem, Lynd says, was putting the men on trial for more than one crime. He believes accusations of killing Vallandingham tainted jurors as to whether they killed others as well.

Piepmeier dismissed Lynd's theory, saying evidence clearly points to those convicted in Vallandingham's death.

"He ignores facts," Piepmeier said. "(They) took over the prison, took hostages, threatened to kill them, and did it."


Today's stories:
Criminal cases linger
In their own words: Inmates plan murders
Sunday's stories:
Spending cuts endanger reform, advocates say
Widow mourns guard's murder
Key figures during the riot

Police delay in fatal beating investigated
911 call details
DeWine wants to pry open police strategy
Senate president White leads in a gentler style

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