UPDATE: Strickland grants clemency to Cornwell

COLUMBUS — Gov. Ted Strickland has granted clemency to Sidney Cornwell, the man who was facing execution for the 1996 gang-related killing of a Youngstown toddler.

Strickland's decision, shifting Cornwell’s sentence to life in prison without parole, goes against the 7-1 recommendation of the state parole board, whose members believed the execution should move ahead on Tuesday morning as scheduled.

Cornwell was to be transported to the Southern Ohio Correctional Facility in Lucasville this morning. But prisons officials were notified Sunday to stop the transfer, and Cornwell remained at the Ohio State Penitentiary in Youngstown.

Cornwell was convicted of killing 3-year-old Jessica Ballew in an early-morning shooting in June 1996.

According to court documents, he and others drove up to an apartment on Oak Park Lane with the intention of shooting a rival, in retaliation for an earlier incident between neighborhood gangs.

After learning that the intended victim was not at the residence, Cornwell opened fire, killing Ballew and injuring three adults.

As part of the clemency process, public defenders argued that Cornwell grew up abused and suffered from an undiagnosed testosterone deficiency and genetic condition that played a role in his gang involvement and violent tendencies.

They also said Cornwell's punishment was disproportionate to sentences handed out for other killings in Mahoning County, and that the jury did not have the option of giving him a life sentence without the possibility of parole.

But Mahoning County Prosecutor Paul Gains countered during the clemency hearing that Cornwell was aware of his actions and continues to deny full responsibility for his gang involvement.

Gains also downplayed claims that the killing was an accident, saying Cornwell had to have seen Jessica Ballew in the doorway — there were only a few feet between the car and the residence from the narrow alleyway where the shooting took place.

And he and legal counsel from the Attorney General's Office questioned arguments about Cornwell's upbringing, noting that his brother and sister did not turn to the life of gangs and crime that he chose.

The majority of parole board members, in their clemency decision last month, said the circumstances of the case support death as the appropriate sentence.

Board Chairwoman Cynthia Mausser offered the lone dissent in favor of clemency, noting that a diagnoses of a genetic disorder confirmed in Cornwell earlier this year may have affected whether the death sentence was issued.

"I cannot conclude that it would have made no difference to the outcome of the penalty phase, as it seems reasonably probable that a juror may have viewed Cornwell and the other mitigation evidence presented in a more positive light," Mausser wrote. "This evidence is significant enough to question the reliability of the outcome of the penalty phase and conclude that the exercise of executive clemency is warranted."

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