Ohio Supreme Court vacates Roberts death sentence

By Marc Kovac



The Ohio Supreme Court again has vacated the death sentence of a Trumbull County woman, saying a trial court did not consider all evidence presented in the case.

It’s the second time justices have sent Donna Roberts back to the trial court for resentencing.

“Under the unique circumstances presented here, we find that the trial court failed to consider relevant mitigating evidence contained in Roberts’s allocution,” wrote Chief Justice Maureen O’Connor, who was joined in the decision by Justices Paul Pfeifer, Judith Ann Lanzinger and Judith French.

She added, “On remand, the trial court must consider all the mitigating evidence reflected in the record, including Roberts’s allocution, weigh the aggravating circumstances against the mitigating factors, and file a sentencing opinion that reflects that it has complied with these instructions. In doing so, the trial court must make an independent determination of whether a death sentence is appropriate and may not give deference to the sentences previously entered.”

Justices Terrence O’Donnell and Sharon Kennedy dissented, while Justice William O’Neill dissented in part and concurred in part.

Roberts was convicted in the 2001 murder of her husband.

Dennis Watkins, Trumbull County prosecutor, said the office has very little comment on the court’s decision “because it’s coming back for resentencing.”

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 re-sentenced, on an earlier ruling from the Supreme Court, after it was determined the prosecutor’s office assisted in writing the original opinion in the case.

This resentencing will involve a different judge than the one who presided over the original trial and both resentencing hearings. Judge John M. Stuard retired at the end of 2012 and died in early February.

His successor, Judge Ronald Rice, handled the resentencing of Nate Jackson earlier this year.

During oral arguments earlier this year, Roberts argued 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.

A majority of justices agreed, noting that a new trial court entry “failed to mention any of the information provided by Roberts” as part of the first resentencing process.

“When we consider the presence of relevant and potentially significant mitigation in Roberts’s allocution, the utter lack of anything else offered for the specific purpose of mitigation, and our order specifically calling the matter of allocution to the trial judge’s attention, we can hardly conclude that the trial court’s failure to mention the allocution in its sentencing opinion was a mere oversight,” Justice O’Connnor wrote.

“Given these unusual circumstances, we are justified in drawing the inference that when the trial judge weighed the aggravating circumstances against the mitigating factors, he did not consider Roberts’s allocution. This failure violated the Eighth Amendment.”

Roberts will not be released, a prison spokeswoman confirmed; she will either remain at the Ohio Reformatory for Women in Marysville or be transferred to a county jail, pending her resentencing.

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