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Even prosecutors seek mercy for death row inmate

Slagle

COLUMBUS, Ohio – Both prosecutors and defense attorneys asked the Ohio Parole Board on Monday to spare a condemned killer who stabbed a neighbor 17 times, making a rare joint appeal for mercy based on the inmate's youth at the time of his killing and his history of drug and alcohol abuse.

A divided board ruled against clemency two years ago for Billy Slagle, but that was before the election of new Cuyahoga County prosecutor Tim McGinty and a change in his office's approach to capital punishment.

McGinty is applying new criteria to both old and new death penalty cases, and one of those elements is whether a death sentence could be obtained today, assistant prosecutor Matthew Meyer told the board.

"The fact that the prosecutorial team does not feel confident that under today's guidelines and today's laws that we can achieve death, we will not come before the board and the victims and say that death is how case should end up," Meyer said.

Meyer said the decision to recommend mercy was not meant to diminish the heinous facts of the 1986 death of Mari Anne Pope, killed while two young children she was watching were in the house.

Earlier Monday, Slagle's attorneys said his brain was broken by drug and alcohol abuse by the time he committed the crime that sent him to death row.

Slagle wouldn't have killed Pope but for his substance addiction, defense lawyer Joe Wilhelm told the Ohio Parole Board as he asked that Slagle's death sentence be commuted to life without parole.

"Billy was exposed to alcohol from the womb to the crime," Wilhelm said at the hearing.

Attorneys for Slagle, 44, have long argued his sentence should be commuted to life without parole, citing his age – at 18, he was the minimum age for execution in Ohio when the crime happened – and a long history of drug and alcohol abuse.

After the parole board rejected that argument two years ago, Gov. John Kasich put the final decision about Slagle's life on hold while a federal judge weighed challenges to Ohio's execution procedures.

Slagle's defense team renewed its arguments Monday, this time to be joined by prosecutors from Cuyahoga County. Last week, McGinty reversed his office's long-standing position on the case and said he was asking Slagle's sentence be commuted to life without parole. He used the same arguments as Slagle's attorneys, adding that since life without parole was not an option at the time, jurors made the only choice they could to ensure Slagle never be freed.

In 1996, Ohio law changed to allow jurors to choose between death and life without parole. In 2005, lawmakers added a provision allowing prosecutors to pursue life without parole in non-death penalty cases.

Kasich is not commenting. Slagle's execution is scheduled for Aug. 7.

It's unclear whether a sitting Ohio prosecutor has ever asked that a death row inmate under his office have the sentence commuted.

Last year, a former Mahoning County prosecutor pleaded for clemency for a man he put on death row, saying he had come to believe the condemned man was not as responsible as a co-defendant in a fatal 1986 robbery. Kasich commuted the man's sentence.

Last year in Alabama, a man convicted of the 1996 killing and robbery of two people at a pawn shop had his death sentence changed to life in prison without parole. Shelby County District Attorney Robbie Owens first agreed to drop the death sentence for LeSamuel Gamble in 2007 after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that defendants who were under 18 when the crime was committed couldn't be executed. Gamble was 18.

Owens said at the time he supported changing Gamble's sentence since a 16-year-old co-defendant who fired the fatal shots was sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole.

In 2011, an Arkansas prosecutor worked on a plea deal for three convicts known as the West Memphis Three, including one man on death row.

In a 1997 Virginia case, then-Gov. George Allen commuted the death sentence of William Saunders, saying he was swayed by a prosecutor and judge who said Saunders was not the same violent man sentenced to death seven years earlier.

Ohio's Cuyahoga County has long had a reputation for heavy use of capital punishment indictments with relatively low numbers of death sentences. McGinty had promised to reduce the number of death penalty charges when he ran for the office.

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