My name is Vicki Adams Werneke and I am a Federal Public Defender. My colleague Joseph (Joe) Wilhelm and I represented Billy Slagle. This Friday, August 9, will mark my 20th year of doing capital work. I was hoping the date would be celebrated with the saving of another life, and by all accounts it would have been. Sadly, as happens with our clients at times, he lost hope. Apparently Billy wanted to die on his own terms. Although I can’t fault him, I am dismayed and a little angry that he made that decision. Anyone who has been in this macabre business very long knows the emotional roller coaster that the clients and defense teams go through when trying to save a life. The roller coaster in Billy’s case had many high moments and many low moments.
Two years ago we conducted a clemency hearing with compelling reasons why Billy should not be executed. He was just 18 when the murder happened, and at that young age he was already a chronic alcoholic. In fact, he was highly intoxicated on drugs and alcohol at time of the crime. Billy came from a very dysfunctional family and with 90 proof roots. He did not enter the victim’s house with any intent to do her harm, just steal from her to get money for more alcohol and drugs, and was very remorseful from the beginning. At that time two years ago, the Governor did not make a final decision on clemency, but instead granted a reprieve because of the lethal injection litigation. The new execution date was set for August 7, 2013.
In the interim two years, Billy reconnected with his family. He had always been withdrawn and getting him to talk was difficult at times. He was always respectful, he just didn’t show emotion or want to be a bother to anyone. But in those two years, he was more communicative and talked about his dreams for what he would make of his life if given an opportunity to live the rest of his life in prison. He knew that he would never get out and would have accepted a life imprisonment without parole. He talked about learning his native language, so he could talk to his aunt. Our office got him a book and CD set so he could start learning. He wanted to work with animals and dreamed of being involved in the program that inmates are allowed to train service dogs. His family talked about he rescued injured animals when he was a child and how good he was with them. Billy talked about how he wanted to help his nieces and nephews and be the patriarch of the family.
In preparation for the clemency hearing in July, we approached the county prosecutor to see if they would at least not oppose our clemency request. The prosecutor had made many public statements that he was approaching capital cases differently, but we weren’t sure whether that meant newly indicted cases or older ones like Billy’s. To our great surprise, the prosecutor actually joined our request! His written response indicated that he agreed clemency was warranted in Billy’s case. The Parole Board still had a clemency hearing and the prosecutor said reiterated his support for a commutation of sentence and explained why the office was taking that position. The prosecutor also told the Board that the murder victim’s family supported the prosecutor’s position. It was incredible and we were so hopeful. So was Billy.
The parole board issued their report on July 16 and the vote was 6-4 against clemency, which meant we had 4 votes for clemency! Of those 4 board members who voted for clemency, 3 were on the board in 2011 and had voted to deny clemency. We were disappointed that 6 members voted against, but again were hopeful. So was Billy.
But then Governor Kasich denied clemency on July 24. No explanation given other than “nothing had changed in two years.” We were devastated and felt like we had been punched in the stomach. So was Billy.
Circumstances had changed in two years, but I guess it didn’t matter to Governor Kasich that the county prosecutor stated Billy was not the worse of the worst and did not deserve execution. I guess it didn’t matter that the victim’s family was in favor of clemency.
Since the prosecutor supported clemency, we reached out to him again to see if he would agree to a judicial proceeding that would result in Billy’s sentence being modified to life imprisonment. The assistant prosecutor said he would discuss it with Prosecutor McGinty and get back to us. We waited as long as we could, and on Tuesday, July 30, 2013, we filed a Request for Leave to File a Motion for New Trial asking the trial court to vacate the death sentence. We hoped the prosecutor would not oppose the motion and we could work out a deal where Billy would be resentenced to life imprisonment. We also filed a Motion for Stay of Execution with the Ohio Supreme Court and a Motion to Vacate the Sentence. The thought was to give every court and judicial officer the tools to do the right thing and stop the execution. The judge summarily denied the motion the Motion for a New Trial on Wednesday, July 31, 2013, without a response from the prosecutor. We learned of the denial when I checked the online court docket at 4:30pm that day, which showed the order was posted at 2:30 that afternoon. No call from the court and so far not even a copy of the order in the mail.
In the meantime, the Ohio Supreme Court ordered the prosecutor to respond to the stay motion and the motion to vacate by Friday, August 2, 2013, at noon. The prosecutor responded late in the afternoon on Thursday, August 1, 2013.Theprosecutor said they were opposing our motion seven though they admitted that at the clemency hearing they were in favor of a sentence commutation.
On Thursday, August 1, 2013, we filed a notice of appeal of the summary denial of our request for leave to file a Motion for New Trial. The same day, the Court of Appeals sua sponte ordered the briefs to be filed by Monday, August 5, 2013, by 9:00 am and that oral argument would be at1:30 pm. We were pleased, although knew it would have been difficult for us to win. We still had hope.
Our investigator Jan and I went to the prison on Friday, August 2, 2013, to visit with Billy. I shared with him the responses from the prosecutor to our stay motion and the motion to vacate. I also gave him the brief that Joe was filing with the Court of Appeals that day. He was very sad and obviously disappointed, but there was no indication that he was thinking of taking his life. I had documents for him to sign so we could take further appeals and he signed them without hesitation. I tried to give him hope, but also to prepare him for the worse. I told him we had the oral argument on Monday and that we were still fighting for him. Billy has always been somewhat withdrawn so it wasn’t unusual for him to not be very talkative. He was grateful for our visit, but was ready to go back to his cell after about an hour. I told Billy God didn’t want him executed. After Governor Kasich denied clemency, Billy told his family he didn’t want them to visit in person anymore. However, he did call them every day.
While Jan and I were driving the long 4 hours back to Cleveland, Joe called me. At about 5:00that evening, Joe had received a call from Prosecutor McGinty and his two assistants. Apparently one of the assistant prosecutors from the 1988 trial told McGinty that there had been a plea deal offered to Billy’s trial attorney back then. If Billy plead guilty, they would agree that he would be sentenced to life imprisonment with parole after 30 years. The assistant prosecutor said Billy’s trial attorney rejected the offer. However, it appears that Billy had never been informed of the plea deal. Billy even told us that had he been given a deal back then, he would have taken it. He did not know that he could have plead guilty back then and been spared the death penalty. About an hour after Joe talked with McGinty, one of the assistants called asking if we were going to file another stay motion with the Ohio Supreme Court. Joe replied “Of course”, especially based on this new information. The prosecutor told Joe they would not oppose the motion, meaning the Ohio Supreme Court would most likely grant the motion and the execution would be stopped. We would have been able to work out a deal where Billy’s death sentence would be vacated and he would have been sentenced to life imprisonment.
This was great news! Joe and I worked on Saturday to prepare a strategy and the pleadings .However, we were not able to tell Billy because we didn’t have access to him after hours. We didn’t tell his family out of concern that if the information leaked, others would try to stop the support from prosecutor’s office. We sent an email to the case manager at the prison requesting a phone call first thing Monday morning.
But then Sunday morning, the world shattered. I was in church with my dad and my phone kept vibrating in the middle of the sermon. I could tell I was getting phone calls, but didn’t look at my phone. As soon as I could find a discreet time to take a glance at my phone, I saw a text message from Jan telling me that Billy’s sister called to tell us that he had hanged himself. He was gone.
No one from the prison called us, his attorneys. I learned that after they called Billy’s family, the prison media person called the press. By the time I got out of church, it was all over the news.
There are lessons to learn from this case for everyone. I hope those in position to make the final decisions about a man’s life or death take heed of these lessons. The roller coaster of emotions that I, as a lawyer, experience is heart wrenching—but that is only a fraction of how Billy felt. Even in a case where there is no question of guilt, there remain serious questions about whether the death sentence was the appropriate punishment and the cat and mouse games played by those in power. Hope is a powerful thing and loss of hope can be deadly.
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