It took more than 10 hours, but a jury was finally seated Tuesday in the death penalty trial of a Middletown man accused of beating an elderly man to death with an ax last year.
A jury of 6 men and 6 women was empaneled just before 6:30 p.m. Tuesday.
Victor Gantt, 26, who last known address was on Roosevelt Boulevard, is charged with aggravated murder, aggravated burglary, aggravated robbery and tampering with evidence. If the jury finds him guilty, the 2nd phase of the trial will be held to determine his fate. This is the 2nd capital case in less than 6 months in Butler County.
Leroy Jones’ life was cut short when authorities said Gantt attacked him, beating the 75-year-old man to death with an ax. The act was random, police said, with Gantt breaking through a glass door, attacking Jones and then trashing the house.
There might not have been a trial if Gantt’s attorney Melynda Cook succeeded in one of her pre-trial motions. She asked Judge Keith Spaeth to declare a criminal rule unconstitutional so her client could plead guilty but still have a jury decide his punishment.
“The defendant faces a Catch 22: if he pleads guilty, he can present that plea as a mitigating factor, but he forfeits his right to a sentencing jury and faces a judicial panel that has historically imposed a high number of death sentences,” she wrote. “But, if he maintains his not guilty plea, he preserves his right to a sentencing jury, but forfeits his constitutional right for that jury to consider his guilty plea as his possible strongest mitigation evidence.”
Cook said in the past 10 years 3-judge panels who decide the penalty in cases where the defendant pleads guilty have imposed the death penalty 60 percent of the time. By contrast, juries have chosen death in 1 out of 10 sentences, she said.
Spaeth denied the motion based on a body of case law, Assistant Prosecutor Brad Burress said.
Cook’s law partner, Chris Pagan, said he filed motions like this numerous times, when he was still defending death penalty clients. He even appealed the issue to the Ohio and U.S. Supreme Courts but failed because the courts said it wasn’t an appealable issue because the case hadn’t yet concluded. To preserve the issue for appeal, his client would have to plead guilty and lose the constitutional right to a jury trial, Pagan said.
The 6th District Court of Appeals was going to decide a case on this issue, Pagan said, but the Ohio Supreme Court wouldn’t allow it.
(source: Middletown Journal)