Thursday, May 15, 2003

Convict guilty of riot murder

By Sharon Turco
The Cincinnati Enquirer


Ten years after Ohio corrections officer Robert Vallandingham was slain in a bloody prison riot at Lucasville, the last of four inmates charged in his death has been convicted.

Wednesday was the second time a Hamilton County jury found James Were, 46, guilty of kidnapping and of two counts of aggravated murder - one for plotting Vallandingham's death in the thick of the 11-day riot and the other for killing him during a kidnapping.

This time, though, Were may not face the death penalty because of a new U.S. Supreme Court ruling.

Were was convicted and sentenced to die in 1995 for Vallandingham's strangulation death, but in 2002 the Ohio Supreme Court overturned the conviction because Were had not been previously evaluated for competency to stand trial.

The new trial began April 29 and ended Wednesday afternoon after the jury deliberated for about a day.

Prosecutors are seeking the death penalty. But first, in a hearing Friday, they'll have to prove Were is mentally sound.

The U.S. Supreme Court changed the death penalty rules last June declaring executions of the mentally retarded "cruel and unusual."

The commonly accepted standard for mental retardation is an IQ of about 70 or below, including at least two lower-than-average abilities, such as communication.

Were's attorneys contend he is mentally retarded because he has an IQ of 69.

A psychologist testified about Were's low IQ during a pretrial competency hearing, as did a prison teacher.

Defense attorney Elizabeth Agar said the defense would introduce the same evidence Friday, including IQ tests Were took as a child.

If Were is found to be mentally retarded, guidelines call for a sentence of 30 years to life in prison.

Special Prosecutor Steve Tolbert said several legal briefs written by Were show he is mentally sound.

Were kidnapped Vallandingham on April 11, 1993, the day the riot broke out. Four days later he was one of several inmates who voted to kill a guard if inmate demands for food and water were not met, authorities say. Later that morning, Were ordered Vallandingham killed.

Peggy Vallandingham, the guard's widow, smiled at Wednesday's verdict for the first time since the trial began. Friends hugged her outside the courtroom.

Were showed no emotion.


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