COLUMBUS, Ohio (AP) — The Ohio Supreme Court on Thursday upheld the conviction and death sentence of a Cleveland man who killed 11 women and hid the remains in and around his home.
The court’s 5-2 ruling rejected arguments that attorneys for Anthony Sowell wasted time challenging evidence against him and should have focused instead on sparing him from capital punishment.
The court also rejected a request for a new, open court hearing to challenge the admissibility of Sowell’s hourslong police interrogation.
At issue was a 2010 hearing during which a Cleveland judge closed the courtroom while he heard arguments for and against allowing the videotaped interrogation, which lasted for more than 11 hours.
The judge ultimately allowed its use, and most of it was played during Sowell’s trial.
The judge identified an overriding interest that supported closing that hearing, Justice Terrence O’Donnell said.
As a result, “the trial court did not abuse its discretion in ordering the limited closure of the courtroom,” O’Donnell said.
Justice William O’Neill and Chief Justice Maureen O’Connor dissented, saying a new hearing should be held.
In “a criminal-justice system governed by the rule of law, a serial murderer’s trial is subject to the same constitutional protections as the trial of a low-level thief,” O’Neill wrote.
Sowell, 57, was indicted in 2009 and convicted and sentenced in 2011. Jurors found Sowell guilty of killing 11 women from June 2007 to July 2009. Police found their mostly nude bodies throughout his home after a woman escaped and said she had been raped in the house.
Despite the ruling, an execution is years away. Sowell could still appeal through the federal courts.
While Ohio plans three executions next year, it hasn’t said if it has enough drugs for additional executions. Two dozen men are on the state’s death row.
New lawyers for Sowell argued a better strategy would have been to concede Sowell’s overwhelming guilt and push for life without parole based on his background, including a chaotic childhood.
Sowell’s trial attorneys “repeatedly directed the jurors’ attention to gruesome and painfully damning evidence,” according to a 2012 court filing by attorneys Jeffrey Gamso and Erika Cunliffe.
As a result, the trial attorneys looked desperate and jurors were likely irritated that it dragged out the trial, the filing said.
A message was left with Gamso on Thursday seeking comment.
Prosecutors disagreed, saying nothing in the law prevented Sowell from making such arguments.
“Sowell had an absolute constitutional right to go to trial and to force the State to prove his guilt on every charge in the indictment beyond a reasonable doubt,” according to a 2013 filing by Cuyahoga County assistant prosecutors Katherine Mullin and Kristen Sobieski.
A Cuyahoga County prosecutor said the evidence against Sowell was overwhelming with or without the videotaped interrogation.
“The law and the facts are what they are,” assistant prosecutor Christopher Schroeder argued to the justices. “They’re not going to change because a couple of people are sitting in the gallery in an open courtroom versus doing it in a closed courtroom.”
Schroeder also said evidence in favor of sparing Sowell was slight, consisting mainly of his seven years as a U.S. Marine.
Prosecutors say Sowell’s victims were recovering or current drug addicts and most died of strangulation. Some had been decapitated, and the bodies of others were so badly decomposed that coroners couldn’t say with certainty how they died.
In interviews with police, Sowell said he targeted women who reminded him of his ex-girlfriend, who had been addicted to crack and left him shortly before the killings began.
Andrew Welsh-Huggins can be reached on Twitter at https://twitter.com/awhcolumbus. His work can be found at http://bigstory.ap.org/content/andrew-welsh-huggins
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