Inmate#8217;s sentence affirmed

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, June 18, 2008

COLUMBUS — The Supreme Court of Ohio has unanimously upheld the conviction and death sentence of inmate James Were for the aggravated murder of corrections officer Robert Vallandingham during the 1993 prisoner uprising at the Southern Ohio Correctional Facility in Lucasville.

In the decision, written by Justice Paul E. Pfeifer, the Supreme Court unanimously overruled all 33 allegations of legal and procedural error by the lower courts Were submitted as grounds for reversal of his conviction or reduction of his death sentence.

Though the Were case was handled by the Hamilton County Prosecutor’s Office, Lynn Grimshaw was Scioto County Prosecutor at the time of the riot and oversaw assignment of the numerous cases among a group of prosecutors from throughout the state. Grimshaw said he is pleased with the ruling.

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“My belief, and I believe this with every fiber in my being, is that every effort was made to be aggressive in our prosecution and yet scrupulously fair to all individuals being prosecuted,” Grimshaw said. “I believe all the prosecutors who handled these cases did so very professionally.”

Among the arguments Were used to try to beat the death penalty was that he is mentally retarded and therefore ineligible for capital punishment under a 2002 U.S. Supreme Court ruling. Justice Pfeifer noted that, after finding Were guilty of the kidnapping and aggravated murder of Vallandingham, the trial court followed proper guidelines by conducting a hearing to evaluate whether Were was in fact retarded.

Citing hearing testimony by Dr. W. Michael Nelson, a clinical psychologist who testified as the state’s expert witness, Justice Pfeifer wrote, “Nelson’s testimony and Were’s school records support the trial court’s findings that Were is not mentally retarded. Nelson testified that Were’s scores of 69 on the Stanford-Binet IQ test were not indicative of mental retardation. Moreover, Were’s school records completed at the time of his first IQ test stated that Were was functioning in the ‘slow learner’ range of mental ability, not that he was mentally retarded.”

Pfeifer also denied Were’s claim that witness testimony placing him in the shower room where Vallandingham was strangled at the time of the killing was insufficient.

“Were also argues that his ‘mere presence’ in the company of others who killed Vallandingham does not establish his guilt,” Pfeifer wrote in his ruling. “Were was not an innocent bystander when Vallandingham was killed. He advocated killing a corrections officer and voted to do so. Subsequently, Were orchestrated Vallandingham’s murder by removing Vallandingham from his cell, taking him to the shower area, and overseeing the inmates who killed him. Were’s argument is without merit.”

In April 1993, a group of prisoners began a riot and took control of the prison’s “L Block.”

Vallandingham and seven other guards were taken hostage and the rioting inmates held authorities at bay for 11 days.

Before prison officials regained control, several nine prisoners and Vallandingham were killed.

Were, a leader of one of the prisoner factions involved in the riot, was originally convicted for his role Vallandingham’s murder and was sentenced to death by the Hamilton County Common Pleas Court two years later. The First District Court of Appeals

upheld that conviction in 1998, but in 2002 the Supreme Court of Ohio overturned the conviction and Were’s case was

remanded to the lower court for a new trial.

The state’s highest court ruled that the trial court had failed to conduct a required hearing to determine whether Were was mentally competent to stand trial.

Following a hearing, at which the trial court found Were competent to face charges, he was retried before a new jury in 2003 and again found guilty of aggravated murder and sentenced to death.

Were was one of several inmates convicted in connection with the Vallandingham death. His attorney, E. Fred Hoefle, was contacted for comment on this story, as was Vallandingham’s widow, Peggy Vallandingham. Neither were immediately available for comment.