By Marc Kovac
Is John Jeffrey Eley a mentally disabled man who gullibly did the bidding of a violent career criminal or a cold-blooded killer who gunned down a Youngstown shopkeeper during an impromptu robbery more than 25 years ago?
That’s the question the state parole board is considering as members decide whether to move forward with the execution of Eley next month for the 1986 shooting death of Ihsan “Easy” Aydah or to allow the now-63-year-old convicted murderer to live out his days behind bars.
Eley, on death row since 1987, faces lethal injection July 26 at the Southern Ohio Correctional Facility in Lucasville. The parole board will offer its recommendation next Wednesday, and Gov. John Kasich will make the final decision on clemency.
Eley was sentenced to death for the murder of 28-year-old Aydah during a robbery of the Sinjil Market. Eley told investigators at the time that he shot Aydah after the shopkeeper reached under a counter for a gun. He said he was aiming at the victim’s shoulder and did not intend to kill him, though the gunshot entered Aydah’s head inches above the earlobe.
Federal public defender Vicki Werneke argued Tuesday during a clemency hearing in Columbus that Eley is an intellectually disabled, easily manipulated man who followed the lead of another, Melvin Green, the real instigator of the robbery who put the black, snub-nose gun in Eley’s hand the day of the crime.
Werneke also quoted former Mahoning County Prosecutor Gary VanBrocklin, who offered Eley a plea deal in exchange for testifying against Green. Eley declined, and Green was acquitted of aggravated murder in the case.
“This was a robbery of a convenience store, and there was a shooting,” VanBrocklin said in taped statement presented to the parole board. “It wasn’t in the more heinous nature of many of the types of cases that now receive the death penalty. … It’s not appropriate in this instance to put John Eley to death. I’m not saying that John doesn’t deserve to be punished, but I believe that life without parole is adequate punishment for him, particularly after all of these years. ... I just believe that justice would be served if Gov. Kasich would commute John’s sentence.”
Public defenders also pointed out other mitigating factors — Eley’s impoverished childhood, a history of alcohol and drug abuse and head injuries, and likely brain impairment — among reasons for a sentence commutation. And a psychologist presented as an expert in mental retardation said he believed Eley is mentally disabled and, if tried today, likely would not qualify for a death penalty.
But Assistant Mahoning County Prosecutor Ralph Rivera called Eley a career criminal with a lengthy record who “has never learned from his mistakes” and who “denies all responsibility for the crime,” despite his earlier confession.
“It was the defendant who chose to go with Melvin Green, and he chose to end Mr. Aydah’s life,” he said.
Rivera said there has been no diagnosis that Eley is mentally disabled or mentally ill, and he was shown to be competent to stand trail, understood the charges and proceedings against him and contributed to his legal defense.
Tuesday’s clemency hearing stretched more than seven hours, most of it focused on public defenders’ argument in favor of clemency. No family members of Eley or the murder victim offered comments.