1985 killer of YSU student to get new hearing over bias concerns
YOUNGSTOWN — The notorious murder case against Bennie Adams, in the death of Youngstown State University student Gina Tenney, is coming back to town for a new hearing on whether his jurors were biased.
The 2008 aggravated murder conviction of Adams, 65, in the 1985 murder of Tenney, is set for hearing June 12 and 13 before Judge Anthony Donofrio of Mahoning County Common Pleas Court.
Adams, of Youngstown, initially was sentenced to death after being convicted in Tenney’s murder. But the Ohio Supreme Court in 2015 overturned Adams’ death sentence, and former Mahoning County Common Pleas Court Judge Lou D’Apolito sentenced Adams to 20 years to life in prison in June 2016.
Now, a federal judge has ruled Adams is entitled to a hearing where his attorneys can present evidence that jurors in his 2008 trial were biased.
They would argue the jurors possibly were biased by knowing that Adams previously had been convicted of rape, kidnapping and robbery in 1986 in a Boardman case. Adams served nearly 18 years in prison on those convictions.
Adams is housed in the Trumbull Correctional Institution in Leavittsburg with his next parole board hearing set for June 2028.
Donofrio has scheduled his hearing for June 12 and 13 and set an April 17 deadline for defense and prosecution filings that will lay out their positions.
The hearings will address issues raised in a federal habeas corpus decision from U.S. District Court Judge James S. Gwin in Cleveland.
“On Dec. 29, 1985, Adams murdered Tenney before casting her body in the Mahoning River,” according to the background contained in Gwin’s ruling.
Tenney, of Ashtabula, was Adams’ downstairs neighbor in an Ohio Avenue duplex in Youngstown at the time of her death — and had complained about Adams’ behavior prior to her death.
Her frozen body was found in the river near West Avenue the day after her killing. Adams was indicted in the case in 2007, after a DNA match was found in evidence that Youngstown police had preserved for 22 years.
Adams was charged with killing Tenney three years after being released from prison after serving 18 years for kidnapping, raping and robbing a Boardman woman during the summer of 1985.
In federal filings, Adams’ attorneys argued that jurors were biased against Adams during his 2008 trial by being aware that Adams had been convicted of the earlier kidnapping, rape and aggravated robbery.
Gwin’s decision stated that Adams should be granted the two-day hearing — known as a Remmer hearing — to “decide whether knowledge of Adams’ prior conviction sufficiently biased the jurors.”
The Gwin ruling cites an affidavit from a male juror.
This juror stated that shortly after the jury recommended that Adams get the death penalty for killing Tenney, another juror approached the male juror at lunch “and said, ‘if it made (the male juror) feel better, Bennie Adams was in prison for rape for 17 years.’
“After delivering the verdict, most jurors went to dinner together,” the ruling continued. The male juror “says that at dinner, a second juror approached (him) and said that she had been dying to tell (the male juror) that Bennie Adams had been in prison for rape for years.”
The ruling does not say how long the jurors had known this information.
JUROR RAPE VICTIM
The male juror also stated that a female juror “cried while discussing Tenney’s rape during deliberations because (the woman) had also been raped.” During jury selection, the woman “did not disclose any rape when asked whether she had been the victim of a violent crime,” the ruling added.
Gwin found that Adams’ right not to be judged biased jurors was not violated by the juror failing to disclose that she had been a rape victim. Gwin said he found it reasonable that a state court found no proof of bias.
The juror stated in an affidavit that she did not consider her rape to be a crime because she never reported it and no criminal proceedings resulted from it.
She believed she had answered questions during jury selection honestly because she did not “intentionally deceive” anyone with her answers to jury-selection questions.
The woman also said the rape “did not impact her deliberations in Adams’ case,” the ruling states.
Gwin’s ruling cited a U.S. 6th Circuit ruling that he felt was similar to the allegations in the Adams case. He was referring to the allegations of jurors improperly knowing about Adams’ earlier convictions.
In the 6th Circuit case, the court found that when a defendant raises a plausible claim of “extraneous influence,” a court must order a “Remmer hearing to give the (defendant) the opportunity to prove actual bias. And when the record does not show precisely when the juror discovered the extrajudicial information, a Remmer hearing provides the appropriate forum … to decide the (information’s) nature, timing and content.”
Gwin stated that Adams’ attorneys offered “evidence that at least two jurors knew about Adams’ prior rape conviction immediately after the penalty-phase deliberations.”
Adams’ complaints of bias by jurors were denied in earlier state appeals on the grounds that “the jurors might not have discovered Adams’ (earlier) conviction” until after the jurors recommended the death sentence for Adams, Gwin’s ruling states.
“Although Adams has not yet proven when the jurors learned about his prior rape conviction and has not proven what, if any, impact any prior conviction knowledge may have had, Remmer gives Adams a chance for an evidential hearing,” Gwin stated.
Gwin ordered the Remmer hearing to take place within 150 days of his Feb. 13 ruling.
Donofrio was not the judge who handled Adams’ trial or sentencing, but he will handle the Remmer hearing because Donofrio’s predecessors handled earlier matters in the case.
Former Mahoning County Common Pleas Court Judge Tim Franken, who died in 2019, presided over Adams’ trial.