First week of Hoerig murder trial cause for reflection

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There was barely time during last week’s five rapid-paced days of jury selection and testimony in the Claudia Hoerig aggravated-murder trial for reflection on what a long journey it was to get to that point.

It was a stunner when the public learned Jan. 17, 2018, that the FBI and U.S. Marshal’s Service had gone to Brazil and brought Hoerig back to Trumbull County to face trial in the 2007 shooting death of her husband.

It was stunning partly because local and U.S. officials kept her return a closely guarded secret.

It was also stunning because it had been so many years earlier that Trumbull County Prosecutor Dennis Watkins started talking about the unfairness of Claudia living freely in her home country of Brazil after allegedly killing her Air Force Reserves major husband, Karl, in their Newton Falls home.

Watkins issued numerous updates on the case over the next 11 years, as did U.S. Rep Tim Ryan of Howland, D-13th, who sponsored legislation in Congress seeking sanctions against Brazil, hoping it would put pressure on the South American country to act.

The process was complicated because Brazil’s constitution did not allow extradition of native Brazilians. Some have said that when Brazilian national police delivered Claudia to an airport in Brasilia, Brazil, Jan. 17, 2018, and allowed U.S. officials to fly her back, it was the first time Brazil had ever done this.

An extraordinary hearing took place a few days later when Claudia appeared for the first time in a Trumbull County courtroom, in custody. It was a moment Watkins and Karl Hoerig’s family had anticipated for more than a decade.

After the hearing, Watkins and several federal officials involved in bringing her back gave a news conference in Judge Andrew Logan’s courtroom. Watkins was praised for his determination to see justice served.

But when Claudia’s trial opened last week, it became apparent that defense attorneys with the Trumbull County branch of the Ohio Public Defender’s office also viewed this as an important case.

Though Claudia confessed to the crime in a long interview at the Trumbull County jail the night she returned, she had not confessed to the aggravated-murder charges brought against her.

Defense attorney John Cornely said there would be no evidence Claudia acted with premeditation when she killed her husband. Instead, she said Karl’s words moments before she shot him “enraged” her.

Watkins, who has been the elected Trumbull County prosecutor 34 years and has tried 45 murder trials, rarely enters the courtroom to try cases these days.

But he has prosecuted this case with assistant Prosecutor Chris Becker, questioning witnesses and giving an hour-long opening statement.

He also personally questioned Dr. Joseph Felo of the Cuyahoga County Medical Examiner’s Office Friday. Felo is a key witness who said the two fatal shots fired at Karl were fired at the bottom of the steps and not three steps from the top.

Claudia told investigators Karl was three steps from the top when she fired at him.

Lead defense attorney is John Cornely, deputy director of the trial-services division of the Ohio Public Defender. Cornely replaced Matt Pentz, longtime head of the Trumbull County branch of the public defender’s office, after Pentz resigned last year.

Atty. David Rouzzo, a veteran of the Trumbull County branch of the public defender’s office, was responsible for one of the more memorable moments of the trial.

Rouzzo asked Peter Pizzulo, lead detective in the Hoerig case when the murder occurred, about the 2009 theft conviction that ended Pizzulo’s law-enforcement career. Rouzzo’s questioning appeared to be aimed at undermining Pizzulo’s credibility.

Retired FBI agent Anthony Sano testified Thursday that the flight to Brazil Jan. 15, 2018, to get Claudia was done secretly.

The government chartered a private plane to bring Claudia back. On the nine-hour flight, she volunteered information, though Sano and Bill Boldin of the U.S. Marshal’s Service were not allowed to ask her any questions.

“Tony, let me tell you. A wife doesn’t kill her husband without a good reason,” Claudia said, Sano testified.

She proceeded to tell Sano that the first shot she fired hit Karl in the head. After killing Karl, she tried to kill herself, but the gun did not fire.

She said she called her family on the telephone, and they convinced her to come back to Brazil because “Ohio has the death penalty,” Sano said.

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