Mitigation phase of Hundley trial begins May 30


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By JOE GORMAN

jgorman@vindy.com

YOUNGSTOWN

After Lance Hundley was found guilty Monday of aggravated murder with death penalty specifications and jurors were dismissed from Mahoning County Common Pleas Court, the only sound that could be heard was shackles the deputies wrapped around the defendant.

Family members who had nodded affirmation through muffled sobs as jurors announced their verdicts also did not have much to say as Hundley was led out of the courtroom.

Hundley, 48, of Warren, was found guilty of the Nov. 6, 2015, beating and strangulation of Erika Huff, 41, with whom he had been living in her Cleveland Street home; and attempted murder for beating her mother, Dorothy Johnson. Jurors also found Hundley guilty of aggravated arson for trying to burn both victims and the house.

Jurors found that Hundley killed or tried to kill two or more people during the same course of conduct, which under Ohio law makes him eligible for the death penalty. Jurors will return May 30 for the mitigation phase of the trial, where jurors will hear evidence put on by his lawyers to explain why they should spare Hundley’s life.

If jurors find that Hundley should die, Judge Maureen Sweeney can reject or accept their recommendation.

Jurors received the case to deliberate about 10:45 a.m. after hearing closing arguments and came back with a verdict about 2:20 p.m.

In his closing argument, defense lawyer Doug Taylor said that the testimony of Denise Johnson and her husband Lonnie Johnson should not be trusted because it was inconsistent with statements they gave the police in November 2015.

Taylor also said that police failed to test key pieces of evidence in the home, such as a lighter next to Huff’s body. During their questioning of witnesses defense attorneys often asked if there were any footprints or any other evidence that another person could have been in the home before police arrived.

Chloroform, which can render someone unconscious, was found on a bloody shirt Hundley wore that was tested for evidence. A defense expert testified on the effects of chloroform on the human body but the expert said there was no way to tell if Hundley had any chloroform in his system when he was treated for smoke inhalation at the hospital after he was found in the burning home — because hospitals do not test for chloroform.

Assistant Prosecutor Jennifer McLaughlin said in her closing argument that even Hundley admitted he was in the home when Huff was killed. There was never anyone else, she said.

“There was never another suspect in this case,” McLaughlin said.

Huff needed a wheelchair because she suffered from multiple sclerosis. She also had a medical alarm — and it was that alarm she wore around her neck that Hundley used to strangle her after the savage beating she endured failed to kill her, McLaughlin said.

In her rebuttal to the defense’s closing argument, assistant Prosecutor Dawn Cantalamessa said the state’s witnesses have always been consistent on the main points of the trial: That it was Hundley who told Denise Johnson he killed her daughter as he was beating Johnson, and that he would kill her and her son as well.

Cantalamessa also scoffed at Hundley’s testimony from Friday, where he said he fell asleep in the home after being “choked out.” When he came to, he said he saw a man leave Huff’s room carrying a gasoline can and later that man was in a car next to Huff’s stepfather, Lonnie Johnson. Denise Johnson later appeared holding a gas can and told Hundley to keep calm so they could figure out a story to tell the police.

“He’s [Hundley] not reliable,” Cantalamessa said. “The state’s witnesses are reliable.”

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