By BOB JACKSON
VINDICATOR COURTHOUSE REPORTER
YOUNGSTOWN -- Lawyers were to plead their cases today before the Ohio Supreme Court as to why Leslie Johnson should or should not be set free.
Johnson, 29, of Glenwood Avenue, is being held in Mahoning County Jail pending the outcome of the hearing.
County prosecutors will argue that Johnson should go back to the penitentiary to serve the life sentence that was handed to him in September 1996 for his role in the killing of 3-year-old Jessica Ballew and wounding of three adults at an Oak Park Lane row house.
Defense attorney Sherman J. Miles will counter that Johnson should be set free, as he was when the 7th District Court of Appeals overturned his conviction by a 2-1 vote in June 2000.
Johnson was released from prison in July 2000, but was picked up and put back in jail after the high court agreed to hear an appeal from the prosecutor's office. He is being held without bail.
Prosecution: Janice T. O'Halloran, assistant prosecutor, said she will argue that Johnson is just as guilty as others who were convicted for participating in the shooting, even though he may not have had a gun on him.
She said Johnson spent the day with a group of men who planned to kill a rival gang member and went with them to carry out the hit.
"If you go with them in a caravan of cars with the intent to hunt, shoot and kill, then you are just as guilty as they are," O'Halloran said.
The court will probably take time to consider the arguments before handing down a ruling later this summer, O'Halloran said.
Defense: Miles could not be reached to comment, but wrote in court documents that he will stand on the same argument he made to the court of appeals.
The appellate court ruled that Johnson should not have been convicted because his mere presence at the crime scene is not enough to consider him an accomplice, even if he approved of what happened.
Judges Gene Donofrio and Edward Cox also said the state failed to produce evidence that Johnson assisted or encouraged Sidney Cornwell, the trigger man in the shooting. Cornwell is awaiting execution for his role.
O'Halloran said the state presented ample evidence that Johnson was more than a passive spectator who happened to be present at the crime scene, and that he helped to plan and carry out the shooting.