Trumbull judge resentences Donna Roberts to the death penalty

By Ed Runyan


The death penalty will stand for Donna Roberts, formerly of Howland.

Last October, the Ohio Supreme Court ordered that Roberts, 69, receive a new sentencing hearing for her role in the 2001 murder of her ex-husband, Robert Fingerhut.

On Wednesday, she got that, with Judge Ronald Rice of Trumbull County Common Pleas Court ordering that Roberts be executed.

Roberts sat with a hand in front of her face through most of the hearing, apparently trying to avoid being photographed.

An execution date for Roberts has not been set. She is the only woman on death row in Ohio.

Judge Rice inherited the case when he was elected to replace Judge John M. Stuard after Stuard retired in 2012 and died in February 2013.

Judge Stuard had sentenced Roberts to the death penalty, after Roberts and her boyfriend, Nate Jackson, were convicted in the murder. But the Supreme Court ordered Judge Stuard to resentence Roberts and Jackson to correct an error, and Stuard did so, with Roberts and Jackson again getting the death penalty.

The Ohio Supreme Court, however, said Roberts’ second sentencing was also flawed, because Judge Stuard failed to consider some of the information Roberts told him during a hearing Oct. 22, 2007.

In the hearing, Roberts said damaging evidence of the murder plot recorded in phone calls and letters between Roberts and Jackson were just “stories,” like the creative writing she had done as a child.

Over about 30 minutes, Roberts also said she had a car accident in 1999 that left her “kind of demolished” mentally and that she’d been sexually abused as a child.

When Judge Stuard sentenced her about a week later, he failed to mention in his written sentencing entry any reference to what he thought about the remarks Roberts had made.

The higher court said failing to mention Roberts’ comments meant Judge Stuard had “failed to consider relevant mitigating evidence.”

When Judge Rice had his sentencing hearing Wednesday, he appeared to be making sure no such argument could be made again, spending more than 30 minutes reading from 28 pages of sentencing documents.

These listed all of the documents he read before deciding on the sentence and all of the factors he considered.

He discussed the comments Roberts made during her 2003 sentencing, as well as her remarks in 2007, then discussed the merits of each claim contained in the remarks.

Under Ohio law, Judge Rice was required to weigh the aggravating circumstances that the jury found Roberts to have committed — such as committing a robbery along with the murder — against the mitigating circumstances given to him — such as mental instability.

In the end, Judge Rice said he found the aggravating circumstances “overwhelmingly” outweigh the mitigating circumstances.

As to the issue of Roberts’ mental health, Judge Rice said there was no evidence indicating that she “did not understand the criminality of her conduct.”

He also said Roberts spoke well and had indicated she was a “powerful entrepreneur capable of earning a magnitude of wealth.” So, he gave “little weight” to her claims of mental deficiencies.

Roberts was not the “triggerman” in the murder, but “the evidence clearly demonstrated that she orchestrated the entire plot,” Judge Rice said, adding she “premeditated for months.”

Though Roberts said she had been abused as a child, “there is absolutely no evidence before this court to support the veracity of the physical abuse allegations made by Roberts against Fingerhut,” the judge said.

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