Howland woman asks top court to vacate her death sentence
By Marc Kovac
The only woman on Ohio’s death row asked the Ohio Supreme Court Tuesday to vacate her death sentence, citing errors made during an earlier resentencing.
Donna Marie Roberts argues that the trial judge should have considered head injuries, her history of depression and other mitigating factors before again issuing the ultimate penalty for her role in the 2001 murder of her former husband.
“What happened here is the court got reversed, got [its] hand slapped ... and did the bare minimum to just get it out of there as quickly as possible, and everything we requested to support [Roberts’ case] was denied,” attorney David Doughten said.
But prosecutors, during oral arguments that lasted more than an hour, countered that Roberts had her days in court, evidence was presented, and the judge properly weighed and resentenced her to death.
“Even though she stood before the court and talked for 18 pages worth of transcript, she never said to the court, ‘Don’t sentence me to death, I’ve changed my mind on this, I thought this was a good idea five or six years ago, I’ve changed my mind,’” said Assistant Trumbull County Prosecutor LuWayne Annos. “That was never stated to the court, not by Ms. Roberts and not by her counsel. At no point was there ever a plea for Donna Roberts’ life at that second sentencing.”
According to documents, Roberts and her then-boyfriend Nathaniel Jackson planned the murder of 57-year-old Robert Fingerhut for months. Roberts provided Jackson with access to the Howland home she and Fingerhut shared, where Jackson shot the victim multiple times.
Both Roberts and Jackson received death penalties and were resentenced on an earlier ruling from the Supreme Court, after it was determined that the prosecutor’s office assisted in writing the original opinion in the case. Roberts also was not allowed to make an oral statement to the judge before her original death sentence was announced.
Legal counsel for Roberts argued Tuesday that the trial court judge should have allowed additional mitigating evidence after the case was remanded.
Among other arguments, Roberts contends the court should have considered that she was sexually abused as a child, spent time in a psychiatric ward, suffered severe head injuries from car accidents and received government assistance due to a mental disability.
Justices voiced concern Tuesday that the trial judge did not make direct reference to Roberts’ statement in his final decision, and they questioned prosecutors about whether that was grounds to reconsider the case.
“This is a capital offense,” said Chief Justice Maureen O’Connor. “The judge is required to create a sentencing entry, and there’s certain things that have to be in it that indicate that the judge has met their responsibility when it comes to the weighing and balancing of the aggravating and mitigating circumstances. ... That’s not here.”
Justice Judith Ann Lanzinger added, “What is concerning me... it seems as though the judge went back and just reviewed what had been done at the trial and specifically talked about the waiver at the trial ... and then prepared an entry talking about the mitigating and aggravating factors ... It seems as though the judge missed the remand.”