By Marc Kovac
The state’s high court is considering whether a Mahoning County man should be executed for the rape and murder of a Youngstown State University student nearly three decades ago.
The Ohio Supreme Court heard oral arguments Tuesday in the case against Bennie Adams, who hopes to overturn the conviction and death sentence he received for the 1985 crime. Among other issues, justices have to determine whether capital punishment is appropriate in a murder case with a conviction that came after the statute of limitations for related crimes expired.
Gina Tenney was in her second year at YSU when a muskrat trapper found her lifeless body floating in the Mahoning River. A coroner determined the 19-year-old had been raped, tied up and smothered and strangled and was dead before being dumped in the water, according to documents.
Tenney lived in an upstairs apartment in a duplex on Ohio Avenue; Adams lived in the downstairs apartment, just down a common stairway. According to documents, Tenney told friends she was scared of Adams, who stared through his window and tried to strike up conversations with her.
Shortly after the crime, officers found Tenney’s bankcard, the keys to her car and apartment, her television and a potholder in Adams’ apartment. Witnesses also testified they had observed Adams attempting to withdraw money using Tenney’s card and driving off in the victim’s vehicle.
Despite the evidence and testimony, the case stretched out over two decades until DNA evidence could be properly tested, tying Adams to the crime. He was convicted of aggravated murder and sentenced to death after serving 18 years for rape in a separate crime.
Adams argues that he did not receive a fair trial, noting more than 20 errors that were made during the proceedings. In court filings, he said officers did not have a proper warrant to enter and search his apartment, and his legal counsel did not have sufficient time to question potential jurors.
“If we have a jury that is not fairly and impartially selected, you can’t say that their verdict is reliably obtained,” said Lynn Maro, one of his attorneys.
Adams also argues that 22 years was an unreasonable amount of time to bring an indictment, considering no new evidence was offered.
“This was a 22-year delay in this prosecution that was re-instituted solely because a detective saw Mr. Adams walking along the street and realized he had been released from prison,” Maro said. “There was no new evidence when Mr. Adams was arrested on Oct. 3, 2007. The delay was prejudicial to this defendant.”
But prosecutors countered that multiple witnesses, physical evidence and DNA all tie Adams to the crime.
Justice Paul Pfeifer pressed Maro on the DNA evidence.
“That’s just pretty hard to get around in terms of your defendant,” he said.
But Justice Bill O’Neill questioned whether Adams was actually convicted of rape, robbery, burglary or kidnapping — offenses that, when accompanying murder, can lead to a death sentence.
Chief Justice Maureen O’Connor noted that the statute of limitations for those crimes had expired by the time charges were brought against Adams.
“In a normal case, you would have a separate conviction for one these felonies, and you would have the felony murder specification, correct?” said Justice Judith Ann Lanzinger. “So we would be going into new territory to say when you have a passage of time like this, you don’t need a separate conviction to support the felony murder spec.”
Justices are considering arguments in the case. There is no time frame for their decision.