Trial dates for accused killers of Vivian Martin bring relief

It would be understandable if the family and friends of slain real-estate agent Vivian Martin took credit for trial dates finally being set for the two accused killers, Robert Brooks, 29, and Grant Cooper, 25. And, area residents would certainly be justified in pointing out that a visiting judge, Lee Sinclair, moved this high-profile case forward in just seven days — after it had languished on Mahoning County Common Pleas Court Judge James Evans’ docket for years.

Martin, 67, a well respected businesswoman and popular member of the black community, was brutally murdered Sept. 20, 2010, after she was lured to a home she was trying to sell in the 3100 block of Nelson Avenue. Prosecutors contend that Brooks and Cooper killed Martin and set the house on fire to cover up the crime.

Frustrated with the numerous continuances and delays in the case, the victim’s family and friends went on the record with Vindicator Reporter Joe Gorman and blasted Judge Evans for failing to bring the defendants to trial.

The front-page story published June 8 triggered intense debate, prompting Evans to send a letter announcing his retirement to the administrative judge of the Common Pleas Court, Lou D’Apolito.

While that may explain why there was no movement on the case recently, it certainly doesn’t let Evans off the hook for the lack of substantive progress last year, or the year before.

It’s unfortunate that Evans’ handling of the case will be part of his record on the bench, because his 15-year tenure has reflected a strong commitment to the law and a dedication to honesty and fairness.

As a result of The Vindicator’s story (“Justice Delayed — 2 accused of murder still await their day in court 4 years later”) turning the public spotlight on the case, we called on Ohio Supreme Court Chief Justice Maureen O’Connor to conduct an administrative review of Judge Evans’ conduct.

We aren’t interested in laying blame or turning this into a public spectacle.

Indeed, with Visiting Judge Sinclair moving the case along quickly — Brooks is scheduled to go to trial Sept. 22, while Cooper will be in the dock on Oct. 27 — there isn’t the urgency to find out why it took so long for the case to be brought to trial.

Nonetheless, the public has a right to know what caused the delays and whether Judge Evans was overly accommodating as far as the prosecutors and defense lawyers were concerned.

Point of contention

The criminal docket of the Mahoning County Common Pleas Court has long been a point of contention for judicial candidates, and over the years the Ohio Supreme Court has sent in staffers to work with the local officials to help break the logjam.

Judge R. Scott Krichbaum has consistently had the lowest number of cases pending and has been praised by Supreme Court justices present and past for his docket-management skills.

We aren’t suggesting that Krichbaum’s style is the only way to conduct the court’s business, but it has proven to be effective.

One of the explanations from Evans for the delay in the Martin case is that the Defense Department was slow in turning over the military records of the two defendants sought by their lawyers.

We would hope the chief justice looks into that complaint and determines whether the seriousness of this case was ignored by federal bureaucrats.

In the end, however, the family and friends of Vivian Martin can now rest assured that Visiting Judge Sinclair will keep moving this case forward.

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