Saturday, May 10, 2003

Suspect returns for trial in 1974 killing

By Janice Morse
The Cincinnati Enquirer

HAMILTON - J. Gregory Howard was an eighth-grader in Louisville when Mildred Ruth Doench was killed in her Fairfield Township home.

Now, 29 years have passed, and Howard, an attorney for 15 years, has been appointed to defend Donald L. Korn, the man facing a retrial in Doench's slaying.

The 72-year-old retired elementary school principal died in one of Butler County's most unforgettably violent crimes. She was raped, stabbed and struck with a mattock, a hatchet-like tool that the killer left embedded in her forehead. It's also one of the oldest cases to be prosecuted.

"When you get a case this old, you've got witnesses who may no longer be around, or ones who don't remember things that well. You don't know where the evidence has been all this time, or how it's been handled," Howard said. "It makes it difficult for both sides."

Butler County Prosecutor Robin Piper agrees that decades-old cases present legal hurdles. But Piper said he's required to seek justice even when it isn't easy, even after almost three decades.

New, undisclosed evidence revived the case, leading officials to file a warrant for Korn's arrest in December. This week, after months of legal wrangling, Korn, a convicted rapist, was brought from an Indiana prison to the Butler County Jail. He is awaiting arraignment on an aggravated murder indictment that was filed in 1976.

"I've never had one pending this long," Howard said.

Korn is already 58 years old and serving a potential life sentence in Indiana. But Piper said he feels it's necessary to go forward because there are no guarantees that Korn will remain locked up. Indiana has denied Korn parole three times since he was convicted there in 1976, but another parole hearing is set for December 2005.

In Doench's case, Korn was previously convicted of killing her; he even had been scheduled to be executed.

But in 1978, the U.S. Supreme Court declared Ohio's death-penalty law unconstitutional, and the next year, an appeals court found Korn's confession was improperly obtained. The court reversed his conviction and said he was entitled to a new trial.

Without the confession, then-Prosecutor John F. Holcomb said he was left without a case. He made several unsuccessful tries to get the appeals court's decision reversed.

Finally, in 1993, Holcomb said he felt compelled to formally withdraw a "detainer," an order to hold Korn for potential prosecution by Ohio authorities.

But the indictment was never dismissed.

The case sat inactive until December 2001, when Butler County Common Pleas Judge Patricia Oney appointed Howard to represent Korn. That was many months after the Butler County Sheriff's Office reopened its investigation.

Last August, Korn filed a motion arguing for the 1976 indictment to be declared void because prosecutors didn't act on it quickly enough. He claims that violated an interstate agreement on detainers.

But prosecutors say that argument is moot because Korn didn't file papers to push for a conclusion.

Oney has not yet ruled on the motion to dismiss.

Korn cannot again face the death penalty, prosecutors say.

The now-unconstitutional death statute, in effect at the time of the alleged crime, would apply. So life imprisonment with the possibility of parole after 20 years is the harshest sentence Korn could get.

Still, Doench's son, Robert, who lives out of state, has said that a conviction would make it easier for him to focus happy memories.


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