Youngstown man ‘never meant to kill that baby,’ friend argues at hearing
By Marc Kovac
Family members called Sidney Cornwell a changed man who has found faith and maturity in the years since entering Ohio’s death row for the gang-related murder of a Youngstown child.
Prosecutors called him a gangster who shot to kill with hopes of impressing other gang members.
The Ohio Parole Board must weigh the two sides as it considers whether to recommend clemency for the Youngstown inmate, who is scheduled to be executed by lethal injection next month at the Southern Ohio Correctional Facility in Lucasville.
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 calling themselves the Crips and the Bloods.
After learning that the intended victim was not at the residence, Cornwell opened fire, killing Ballew and injuring three adults. He was convicted of murder with additional counts and sentenced to death.
Cornwell’s execution is set for Nov. 16, though he is seeking a sentence commutation to life in prison.
Wednesday’s hearing gave his legal counsel, friends and family plus Mahoning County prosecutors and the victim’s family a chance to comment on the clemency request.
Public defenders argued that Cornwell was an unwanted child born into a deteriorating marriage, with parents who used drugs. He and his siblings were neglected by a mother who worked long hours and a father who was a violent man who beat them with “ashtrays, belts, wires, whatever he could pick up,” said Andrew King, an attorney from the public defender’s office.
Cornwell was taunted as a fat kid with breasts who failed in school and in making friends — the result of Klinefelter’s syndrome, an abnormal chromosome condition that leads to late development and social and learning issues. The condition was officially diagnosed earlier this year.
Rob Lowe, an attorney from the public defender’s office, said the jury that heard Cornwell’s case did not review his medical records, was unaware of the Klinefelter’s syndrome and was not told about the risk factors in his life that made him susceptible to gang involvement.
Legal counsel also said Cornwell did not mean to kill anyone, in particular a child. They said he has since admitted to the crime and is remorseful. And they said he has renounced his gang involvement, earned a GED, attends Bible studies and prays on a regular basis.
“Sidney is not the same person today as he was at 19...,” Lowe said.
In emotional pleas to the board, Cornwell’s family members and friends said the inmate was truly sorry.
“He just can’t wait to see them to tell [the victim’s family] how much he wanted them to forgive him for what he had done,” said Marcia Walker, a friend and spiritual mentor. She added later, “He wants the family to know he is sorry. He never meant to kill that baby.”
“If you could please forgive him, because he didn’t do it on purpose,” added Beverly Cornwell Phillips, the inmate’s mother.
But Mahoning County Prosecutor Paul Gains countered 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.
Gains also 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.
Thomas Madden, from the Ohio attorney general’s office, added that legal counsel made comparable arguments on Cornwell’s behalf during his trial. And he questioned the role Klinefelter’s played in Cornwell’s actions.
“It in no way explains why Mr. Cornwell decided to be a gangster and decided to do gangster things, like shoot up innocent victims,” Gains added, “I believe that the jury came to the correct conclusion.”
Jessica Ballew would have been 17 years old this year.
“I don’t blame none of you all,” her father, Virgil Ballew, told members of Cornwell’s family during Wednesday’s proceedings. He added, holding up a picture of his daughter: “But that’s my baby. I didn’t even get to see her grow up. ... I forgive Sidney for what he did. ... It’s up to God to do what he’s got to do. If he gets put to death, he gets put to death, because he knew what he was doing.”
The parole board will issue a recommendation in the case on Oct. 21. Gov. Ted Strickland has final say whether to grant clemency.