By Marc Kovac
An Akron man facing execution next month for the murder and dismemberment of a woman 15 years ago maintains his innocence, saying prosecutors and a jailhouse snitch lied about the crime and failed to test evidence that could exonerate him.
In an interview from death row at the Chillicothe Correctional Institution, Brett Hartmann told the Statehouse bureau of The Vindicator that phone records and hair and fingerprints taken from the scene could prove he didn’t stab 46-year-old Winda Snipes 138 times, slit her throat or cut off her hands.
The latter were never found.
“Whether people want to believe I’m innocent or not, you know, but ask why,” Hartmann said. “Why are they hiding? Why are they lying so much? ... Why are they lying and hiding evidence like they do?”
Hartmann, 38, is scheduled for lethal injection Nov. 13 at the Southern Ohio Correctional Facility in Lucasville.
Twice in recent years, the state parole board has recommended against clemency in the case, with a third decision from that panel expected in coming days after another hearing earlier this week.
In documents presented to the parole board, Snipes was described as a “thoughtful and caring person” who “dressed meticulously” and was “extremely close” to her family.
One day in September 1997, she picked up her paycheck, mailed a letter and stick of gum to her grandmother and was spotted crossing the street near her Highland Square neighborhood in Akron.
Police found her mutilated body tied to a bed in her apartment that evening after receiving several 9-1-1 calls from Hartmann, who admitted having sexual relations with the victim hours before she was murdered.
Police found Hartmann’s fingerprints on a bedspread and on the leg of a chair, and investigators later matched his DNA to the victim’s body.
They also found a wristwatch that purportedly belonged to Snipes and a bloody T-shirt at Hartmann’s apartment.
They also cited incriminating comments he made to a co-worker and a cellmate. The latter said Hartmann confessed the crime.
According to documents submitted by the prosecutor’s office to the state parole board, “... The evidence at trial (as well as recent DNA evidence) clearly establish that [Hartmann] tied Winda to her bed, had vaginal and anal intercourse with her, beat her, strangled her with a cord, stabbed her 138 times, slit her throat, and cut off her hands. The jury found [Hartmann] guilty of Winda’s murder and determined unanimously that [Hartmann’s] crimes warranted death. The jury’s verdict has been affirmed many times by state and federal courts. Subsequent DNA testing also confirmed [Hartmann’s] guilt. ... [His] many claims of legal error have been carefully reviewed, considered and rejected.”
Summit County Prosecutor Sherri Bevan Walsh added in a released statement Friday, “The state has provided Mr. [Hartmann] with top-notch defense attorneys to argue his claims in state and federal courts for the past 14 years. No court — state or federal — has bought any of Mr. Hartman’s claims.”
Hartmann said he and Snipes had a casual sexual relationship, “hooking up” on occasion after drinking at a bar near her apartment. He admitted to police on the night that Snipes’ body was found that he had been with her early on the morning of the crime but that she was alive when he left.
“Clearly, no matter how intoxicated I was that morning, when I left her, she was well, alive and healthy, because she was seen alive later that day,” he said.
Hartmann said he did not murder Snipes; rather, he returned to her apartment for another “hookup” and found her dead on the floor. He said he panicked, grabbed anything that connected him to the crime scene and fled. He said he didn’t think about calling the police immediately to report the crime, only doing so later from a nearby pay phone.
“I lived on the streets with bikers and meth-heads,” he said. “I grew up on Indian reservations where you don’t call the police at all. ... When I found her, the first thing that went through my head was two warrants out for my arrest for traffic violations and failure to pay fines. And the first thing that went through my head was if I call the police, they’re going to run my name, see I have warrants and arrest me and I’m going to lose my job.”
Hartmann said the watch police found at his apartment was common at the time and belonged to a married woman, one of many who he had sexual relations with and who left clothes or other belongings behind. And he said it doesn’t make sense, logically, that he would leave the watch and bloody T-shirt at his apartment for police to find but manage to hide the victim’s hands and other evidence.
“... I supposedly went and hid all these so well that police have never found them and yet come back to my apartment and these two pieces of evidence are just thrown right there in the middle of everything,” he said. “If I would have done something like this, common sense would dictate that you take everything if you’re going to hide it hide it altogether. You don’t hide some of this stuff and then throw some of the most critical evidence in the middle of your floor.”
Hartmann said phone records prove he was at home at the time the murder was committed. He said police and prosecutors failed to test fingerprints, hair and other evidence found at the crime scene that could prove someone else committed the murder. And he denied making incriminating statements to a co-worker or cellmate.
Hartmann said he does not support the death penalty, calling the process for determining capital punishment “totally flawed. ... It has nothing to do with justice or the law or anything. It’s almost all politics.”
He said he and others on Ohio’s Death Row are changed people.
“Most people I know back here don’t even resemble the people they were when they first came,” he said. “I know no one will ever believe me, most of the public will never believe me when I tell them I’ve met better people on Death Row than I ever met out on the street. If I’m hungry, all I have to do is say so and there’s someone there to give me some food. If there’s ever something I need, there will be someone there to help me.”
Asked what he would say to the family and friends of Winda Snipes, Hartmann replied, “My heart goes out to them. I know losing anyone, especially family, is a very traumatizing experience. I recently lost my mom and my sister. And no one in the world deserves to lose a relative or anyone the way that Winda was taken, and my heart goes out to them. But I didn’t do it.”