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Lawyers get OK to work local appeal for Danny Lee Hill

Hill’s 2-decade fight to get off death row set to continue

Judges from the U.S. 6th Circuit Court of Appeals who previously had been favorable to convicted murderer Danny Lee Hill’s legal attempts to avoid Ohio’s death chamber are allowing his federal public defenders to work his latest appeal in Trumbull County court.

In a ruling dated Wednesday, justices Karen Nelson Moore, Eric L. Clay and Jane Branstetter Stranch allowed federal public defenders Vicki Ruth Adams Werneke and Stephen Newman to handle Hill’s bid for reconsideration of determination by the local court whether or not Hill was intellectually disabled and thus constitutionally ineligible for execution for the 1985 rape and murder of 12-year-old Raymond Fife.

A similar three-judge panel from the 6th District had in 2020 upheld belief that Hill was intellectually disabled. The matter eventually was sent to the full Sixth Circuit, which overturned the matter in a 9-7 vote, setting Hill’s execution back on track.

The U.S. Supreme Court in late June refused to hear an appeal to that ruling.

However, Hill’s execution has been delayed by a moratorium placed on Ohio executions by Gov. Mike DeWine. Trumbull County Prosecutor Dennis Watkins has asked the Ohio Supreme Court to set an execution date for Hill.

Hill’s lawyers are citing a 2002 U.S. Supreme Court ruling that decided it was unconstitutional to execute someone who is intellectually disabled.

A previous statement from Watkins had stated it is his office’s “firm belief” that the latest filing … is “totally meritless and legally inappropriate.” Watkins has called it another stalling tactic to delay Hill’s execution.

Senior Assistant Ohio Attorney General Stephen Maher, who was appointed a special prosecutor in the case, had written in a state’s motion that Werneke and Newman were not eligible to work the case in local court because they had lost previous bids on the same issue.

Maher, who has worked on the Hill case for over two decades, is set to oversee all post-conviction proceedings and appeals in the local court.

Common pleas judges have recused themselves of the case because Fife’s mother, Miriam, is a former employee of the prosecutor office’s victim / witness support bureau. A visiting judge has not yet been appointed to hear the appeal.

Miriam Fife told the newspaper on Thursday that she doesn’t understand why 6th Circuit judges are still ruling on the Hill case.

“I’m really ticked off. They aren’t part of this anymore. I certainly don’t understand how this justice system is working,” she said.

Fife said justices Moore and Clay were part of the 2020 ruling that favored Hill.

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