By Patricia Meade
The defendant is learning-disabled, with an IQ of 75.
YOUNGSTOWN — Somber and thoughtful after learning that his teenage client escaped the death penalty, James S. Gentile said: “We should try to take better care of our children, raise them better.”
Jurors who weighed life or death for 18-year-old arson killer Michael A. Davis voted for life in prison with eligibility for parole after 30 years on each of six murder convictions. He will be sentenced later.
The jury, eight women and four men, returned to Mahoning County Common Pleas Court on Thursday for the penalty phase of the capital murder trial. Last week, the panel found the Bennington Avenue teenager guilty as charged — six counts of aggravated murder and 19 counts of aggravated arson. The arsons relate to the six who died Jan. 23, five who escaped the house fire and eight firefighters who were injured.
The panel began deliberating at 2:45 p.m. and reached a verdict at 4:30 p.m. Thursday.
Gentile’s comment after court was a reflection on the mitigating factors he and co-counsel Ron Yarwood used to sway the jury against voting for the death penalty.
Yarwood, in recapping witness testimony during his closing argument, said his client had been neglected and abused at home, was borderline retarded, had cognitive challenges, a second-grade reading level and had been in the lower third of a learning-disabled class.
“We’re asking you to return one of the life sentences,” the lawyer implored.
Youth and mental defect are just two of the mitigating factors allowed by state law to argue against the death penalty.
Davis is small — 5 feet 1 inch, 110 pounds — and looks years younger than 18. He is trying to fill out his baby face with a sparse moustache.
He sat silently, rocking in a chair, at the defense table as his lawyers tried to convince the jury that his life should be spared.
When Judge R. Scott Krichbaum read the verdicts, Davis covered his face with his right hand to conceal a small smile. When he removed his hand, relief showed on his face.
Yarwood, in his closing argument, told the jury that Davis, whose birthday is Dec. 15, “was barely 18” when the crime occurred. “If it had been 39 days earlier, [as a juvenile] death would not be an option,” he said.
Prosecutor Paul J. Gains objected to the comment, and the judge sustained the objection.
On Jan. 23, a bitter-cold day, Davis walked to the Crawford house at 1645 Stewart Ave., stepped onto the porch where an upholstered couch sat near the front door, and used a ignitable liquid to set it on fire at 5:30 a.m. The fast-spreading blaze trapped the six victims — two women and four children — upstairs. All died from smoke inhalation.
Dr. Sandra McPherson, a clinical psychologist hired by the defense, testified that tests she gave Davis showed his IQ is 75; normal is in the 100 range. She said he has low logical application of knowledge, or “common sense,” and has a serious deficit when it comes to taking in and managing information.
McPherson said Davis developed erratically, missed opportunities to learn how to make good decisions and, because of his adolescence, was prone to impulsivity and influence by peers. She pointed out that, beginning in the first grade, he missed a lot of school days over the years.
McPherson admitted, when questioned by Gains, that she is opposed to the death penalty.
Davis’ mother, Ann Davis, who turns 36 today, talked about being a young mother — three boys by age 18 — who worked long hours when they lived in Cleveland, and how Michael was abused by her brother. She said her son’s father was not involved in his life and there was violence in the home with the second man she lived with in Youngstown.
“You want Michael to live, do you not?” Gentile asked.
Wiping tears from eyes and raising her voice, the distraught mother said, emphatically, “Yes!”
Though those on the Davis side were thankful for the jury’s verdicts, relatives and friends of the Crawfords were clearly upset.
“I’m tired of y’all always being in my face. I’m already going through enough,” Retia Crawford, 19, said to reporters after court. “I don’t need y’all always running up to me asking me questions.”
Crawford escaped the fire that claimed the lives of her mother, Carol, 46; sister Jennifer, 23; and Jennifer’s children, Ranaisha, 8; Jeannine, 5; Aleisha, 3; and Brandon, 2.
Crawford and other friends and family huddled with Gains after court while he explained victim-impact statements that they can make in court at Davis’ sentencing.
The prosecutor would not say how he intends to approach sentencing — whether he will ask that the six 30-year terms run concurrently or consecutively.
During his closing argument, Gains said, “If you don’t go to school, you’ll be a slow learner,” and, “Even slow learners don’t have the right to engage in [this] behavior.”
The prosecutor said life is all about choices, whether you’re a slow learner or not. He said, “Nobody forced this young man to do what he did.”
Davis has been in custody since he confessed to the lead detective the day of the fatal fire. The motive was his stolen cell phone, taken by a teenage boy who stayed overnight at the Crawford house and escaped the fire.
Jurors had these options on each of the six murder counts: death penalty; life in prison without possibility of parole; life in prison, parole eligibility after 30 years; or life in prison, parole eligibility after 25 years. They were not told that a vote for the death penalty was only a recommendation to Judge Krichbaum. Judges can override a jury decision for death but cannot override if jurors vote against death.
For the death penalty, the jury had to decide if the aggravated circumstance attached to each murder — that Davis was the principal offender and committed the crimes during another crime, arson — outweighed the mitigating factors raised by the defense.