Full 6th circuit to hear Danny Lee Hill’s appeal
WARREN — The U.S. Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals has decided to hold a full panel hearing to decide whether death row inmate Danny Lee Hill deserves a new hearing to determine whether there is new information to determine whether bite mark evidence was admissible in his 1985 murder case.
According to court records, the full Sixth Circuit has scheduled an en banc, or full-court, hearing to determine the bite-mark question on June 14 at the federal appellate courtroom in Cincinnati.
Last September, a three-judge panel of the U.S. circuit court ordered a public defender’s bid to reopen convicted murderer Danny Lee Hill’s new claim regarding bite-mark evidence to be argued in federal court.
This latest order, which was filed Monday upon the vote of a majority of the Sixth Circuit judges, sets that judgment aside.
“We are very pleased and are thankful of the decision by the judges and especially of the outstanding work of solicitor general (Ben) Flowers and his staff,” Watkins said.
If the full court sides with the three-judge panel’s decision, the case will be forwarded to Judge John Adams of U.S. Ohio Northern District Court in Akron.
“Our hope is that the full Sixth Circuit — after hearing the arguments presented by Ben Flowers — would decide any future litigation of the bite-mark question in federal court would end. This would be a final decision,” Watkins said.
Watkins said the en banc process is a rare procedure at the federal appellate court level.
At issue is the defense lawyers’ attempts to overturn the death penalty sentence given to Hill in 1986 by a three-judge panel in Trumbull County. Hill is one of two people convicted of the torture, rape and brutal murder of 12-year-old Raymond Fife in a wooded area on the southwest side of Warren in September 1985.
Fife’s mother, Miriam Fife, said she received the news about the full circuit’s order during a phone call with Flowers on Monday.
“You guys are getting tired of writing about this,” Fife said to a reporter. “I get tired of this, I want this (appeals) over with and this is the end. You get to that point. I just hope a majority of the court makes the right decision at the end.”
Fife said the “so-called new bite mark evidence argument” was fully litigated in the Ohio court system and determined to have no merit.
Watkins stated he appreciates the time, effort and personal communication with the Fife family that Flowers and the “good staff of lawyers in the attorney general’s capital crimes section” have spent on this case.
Part of the prosecution’s case in the 1986 trial was testimony from a forensic odontologist who said in his professional opinion that Hill left bite marks on Fife’s genitals. In November 2014, Hill’s lawyers moved the state court to hold hearings upon new evidence that the bite-mark identification used at the original trial was invalid. During hearings before a visiting judge in Trumbull County, a forensic odontologist concluded Fife’s injury was not a human bite mark.
When making her decision after the proceedings, visiting Judge Patricia Cosgrove concluded the bite-mark evidence was one of many factors in determining whether Hill was a principal offender in Fife’s rape. Cosgrove said even if the bite-mark evidence was thrown out, the outcome of the trial would have been the same.
In the second claim on this evidence filed in June 2020, Hill’s lawyers alleged the state courts violated Hill’s 14th Amendment right to due process, and the three-judge panel agreed. Hill’s lawyers had maintained the original court relied on “now-discredited” evidence about bite marks on the victim.
The Ohio Supreme Court last year set Hill’s execution date in 2026.