Hill attorneys trade legal maneuvers

WARREN — As a local court prepares for hearings on reconsideration of mental retardation claims from convicted murderer Danny Lee Hill, attorneys for both sides are trading motions at the federal appellate court level.

Over a two-day period last week, federal public defenders, and a special prosecutor assigned by Ohio’s attorney general to Hill’s reconsideration bid, have asked the U.S. Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals for certain rulings prior to upcoming hearings in Trumbull County.

In various legal maneuvers, Hill has sought to be removed from Ohio’s Death Row for the sentence he received in 1986 after being convicted by a three-judge panel for his part in the 1985 torture-killing of 12-year-old Raymond Fife in a field in southwest Warren. He has been appealing the conviction for more than 30 years.

First, public defenders Vicki Ruth Adams Werneke and Stephen Newman have asked the federal jurists to grant authorization for them to handle the litigation in the local court of common pleas.

On July 8, the two public defenders had petitioned the local court to allow a reconsideration hearing because they claim outdated standards were used by a previous visiting judge in ruling against Hill in the mental retardation claim.

“In pursuit of this re-litigation of his Eighth Amendment claim, Mr. Hill now requests this court extend its previous order granting authorization,” the attorneys wrote the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals on July 15 on Hill’s behalf. “Mr. Hill, therefore, seeks to return to the Ohio courts to litigate his intellectual disability pursuant to the new Moore / Ford standard.”

Here, the attorneys are mentioning a 2019 U.S. Supreme Court ruling in a Texas case and a 2019 Ohio Supreme Court ruling. These rulings downplay the use of “lay stereotypes” when assessing a person’s mental disability.

In arguing they should be the attorneys to represent Hill, both Newman and Werneke stated “there are no true options for Mr. Hill to receive representation in state court” and said they are most qualified because they are familiar with the procedural history of the case.

Hill was 19 at the time of the September 1985 rape and murder, among other crimes committed upon young Raymond, who was attacked as he was on his way to meet a friend to walk to a Boy Scout meeting.

It has been argued Hill had diminished mental capacity and was barely literate.

Another defendant, Timothy Combs, a juvenile at the time, was ineligible for the death penalty and died in prison in 2018 while serving multiple life sentences.


Meanwhile, special Prosecutor Stephen Maher has filed an opposing motion with the Sixth Circuit. In his July 17 document, Maher states the court should forward the public defenders’ request to represent Hill to the Northern District of Ohio court in Cleveland.

“That court is in better position to rule on the merits of Hill’s motion concerning his request for counsel to represent him in further state proceedings.” Maher writes.

Maher also said the move for reconsideration came less than two weeks after the U.S. Supreme Court refused to consider Hill’s mental retardation claims. Maher noted the defense attorneys in their motion to the Sixth Circuit didn’t event mention that setback.

Maher said this denial should disqualify both Werneke and Newman, under a 2011 ruling made by the Sixth Circuit.

“After the habeas case is over, appointment of federal habeas counsel to commence new state court litigation is prohibited,” Maher said in noting the 2011 ruling should apply to the Hill case.

Habeas corpus is a fundamental right in the Constitution that protects against unlawful and indefinite imprisonment.

The public defenders are asking a Trumbull court to reconsider the claim that was instituted in an early 2000s by a U.S. Supreme Court ruling in a case named Atkins vs. Virginia. The ruling states the government cannot put to death an intellectually disabled man.

The Atkins claim has been used previously by these same Hill attorneys, but courts, including the full Sixth Circuit of the United States, denied it. The U.S. Supreme Court on June 30 by a 6 to 3 vote refused to hear it.

Since that decision, Prosecutor Dennis Watkins has asked the Ohio Supreme Court to set an execution date for Hill.

In previous Atkins hearings in Trumbull County, visiting Judge Thomas Curran made the rulings. Curran now is deceased. The local judges have recused themselves from Hill’s case because the mother of Hill’s victim, Miriam Fife, had worked for the prosecutor’s victim / witness advocacy office.

The Ohio Supreme Court thus far has not moved to assign a new judge to hear any reconsideration claims by Hill in the local court.


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