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Federal appeals court spares Hill again

Victim’s mom continues to back death penalty

WARREN — It was not the birthday present Miriam Fife wanted, but she said she has been hearing “bad news” about her son’s killer for 35 years.

The 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals on Wednesday again ruled that Ohio can’t execute Danny Lee Hill, who is intellectually disabled and was sentenced to death for the rape and murder of 12-year-old Raymond Fife in 1985.

Hill’s co-defendant, Timothy Combs, died in prison at age 50 in 2018 while serving a life sentence. Combs was 17 when he and Hill, who was 18 at the time, stopped Raymond on Sept. 10, 1985, in a wooded area near Palmyra Road SW, as the boy rode his bike to a Boy Scouts meeting. Raymond died two days later after he was beaten, sexually tortured, strangled with his underwear, set afire and left for dead. He was barely alive when he was found several hours later by his father and brother-in-law.

Because he was a few months shy of his 18th birthday, Combs was not eligible for the death penalty, as Hill was.

Reached at her home on Wednesday — her 80th birthday — Fife said she already had heard the news.

“I am sure the attorney general’s office will appeal, and I will back them in whatever they decide,” Fife said. “I am hoping we can mutually make our point and win this case.”

The Ohio Attorney General’s office declined to comment Wednesday.

Fife said although she and her family are tired of the case dragging on, she believes the attempts to execute Hill should “forge on.”

“If I didn’t think this (execution) was right, I would give up, but I feel his execution is the only way to bring justice to Raymond,” Fife said.

Trumbull County Prosecutor Dennis Watkins said he was extremely disappointed with the appeals court ruling.

“This was the same court that ruled for (Hill) last time,” Watkins said, “and again I would hope that the attorney general’s office would take the appeal to the full Sixth Circuit or even to the U.S. Supreme Court.”

Watkins said he does not blame the fine job done by the Ohio Attorney General’s office in arguing the case.

“It is unfortunate that we couldn’t prevail because both (governor) Mike DeWine and (attorney general) Dave Yost have really picked up the ball for us,” Watkins said. “This court just made a bad decision.”

A three-judge 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals panel ruled unanimously Wednesday that executing Hill would be unconstitutional under a 2002 U.S. Supreme Court ruling.

The opinion recounted the multiple records demonstrating Hill’s mental struggles, including with even basic daily responsibilities such as remembering to take a shower or brush his teeth.

“We hold that Hill is intellectually disabled and that he cannot be sentenced to death. No person looking at this record could reasonably deny that Hill is intellectually disabled,” the opinion stated. “In holding otherwise, the Ohio courts avoided giving serious consideration to past evidence of Hill’s intellectual disability.”

The 6th Circuit also ruled in February 2018 that Hill shouldn’t be executed. After the state appealed, the U.S. Supreme Court agreed that the 6th Circuit should reconsider the case because it had relied extensively on a case decided long after Hill was sentenced to death.

In January, the U.S. Supreme Court decided not to grant Hill a new trial.

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