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Judges consider new trial for man convicted in 1985 Youngstown murder

Staff photos / Ed Runyan Defense attorney Renee Severyn with the Ohio Public Defender’s Office on Wednesday gave oral arguments in a 7th District Court of Appeals case involving Bennie Adams, 66, who was convicted of aggravated murder in 2008. Severyn represents Adams. The panel, from left, Judges Katelyn Dickey, Carol A. Robb and Mark Hanni, will decide whether Adams gets a new trial or a second hearing. regarding pretrial publicity.

YOUNGSTOWN — Three judges from the 7th District Court of Appeals heard oral arguments from attorneys for convicted murderer Bennie Adams and from the Mahoning County Prosecutor’s Office on whether Adams should get a new trial in the 1985 aggravated murder of Youngstown State University student Gina Tenney, 19, who was Adams’ upstairs neighbor in an Ohio Avenue duplex.

The judges said they would rule on the appeal in the coming weeks or months.

Adams, 66, has been in the Ohio prison system since Nov. 14, 2008. He is currently housed at Trumbull Correctional Institution in Leavittsburg. He is sentenced to 20 years to life and comes up for parole the first time Aug. 1 2028, according to prison records.

A federal judge ordered that Mahoning County Common Pleas Court Judge Anthony Donofrio hold a hearing to determine how much the jurors in Adams’ 1985 murder trial knew about Adams having previously been convicted of rape.

Adams’ attorneys have argued that point based on the affidavit of one of the jurors.

It led Donofrio to hold a hearing in June 2023, during which most of the jurors from the trial were questioned. Afterward, Donofrio ruled against giving Adams a new trial, and Adams’ attorneys from the Ohio Public Defender’s Office appealed the decision, leading to last week’s hearing.

Attorney Renee Severyn, who represents Adams, spent much of her 15 minutes talking about what she said was an error by Donofrio not to allow the testimony of Adams’ expert witness, Bryan Edelman, an expert in jury behavior and jury psychology.

Edelman would have testified as to errors he felt that the original trial judge, Timothy Franken, made. Specifically, he would have testified to the pretrial publicity the case received in The Vindicator and the lack of effective measures undertaken to ensure that the jurors selected were not tainted by that news coverage, according to an earlier defense filing.

Severyn told judges Carol A. Robb, Mark Hanni and Katelyn Dickey the federal judge “already acknowledged in the ruling that at least two jurors knew about Adams prior conviction during or immediately after the sentencing phase.”

She said the purpose of Donofrio’s hearing was “to identify those jurors, figure out how they knew and when they learned about the prior conviction and then discover the impact it had on their decision making process.”

When Severyn started to discuss the pretrial publicity jurors acknowledged they had received in the Adams case, Robb interjected that “The pretrial publicity issue had been considered by the court on direct appeal, correct?”

Severyn agreed that it was, but called that proceeding “entirely different” from the so-called Remmer hearing that Donofrio held.

But Robb said, “Wouldn’t the effect be the same?” Severyn said there is a difference between issues of seating a fair and unbiased jury and the specific claims in this case.

“We wanted to look at these specific few jurors and see what they knew,” Severyn said. She said it is known that some of the jurors “interacted with pieces of news about this case. We just wanted to be able to ask what they remember about that.

“We wanted to have the opportunity to say, ‘Back in 2008, you said you read an article about this case before trial. Do you recognize any of these articles from The Vindicator that you said you read? Do any of these facts sound familiar from pieces of news going around at the time?”

“But we were completely barred from asking those questions,” Severyn said.

Then Severnyn and Robb agreed the question to answer is whether jurors knew anything about Adams’ prior conviction at the time the jurors convicted him of aggravated murder, not what they knew at the time they recommenced Adams sentence.

Robb then asked if it isn’t true that none of the jurors questioned at the Donofrio hearing indicated that they knew about Adams prior conviction at the time they found him guilty.

“That was the testimony we received, but we would like to point out that with the questions we were allowed to ask didn’t do the best job of bringing out what the jurors knew, especially 15 years afterwards.”

Robb asked if the testimony of the jurors “should be ignored” because of a “theory” that Severyn mentioned about the types of memories that can be counted on as accurate and ones not accurate.

Robb said it is only important whether the jurors knew about Adams’ prior conviction.

Severnyn said, “Most of these pretrial articles that were published in local papers had information about prior convictions.” Asking questions about those articles would have armed Judge Donofrio with “a lot more certainty about what the jurors learned and how they learned it.”

Severyn said it would be “futile” to order Donofrio to hold a second hearing.” She said a new trial is needed.

PROSECUTION

Ed Czopur, assistant Mahoning County prosecutor, started his presentation by saying the defense did not udder a single time that Donofrio’s decision was wrong as to what happened.

But Robb quickly asked what would be wrong with letting the jurors see documents “to refresh their memory. I mean, it’s been a long time.”

Czopur then said that seven of the 12 jurors said they had never heard anything about the case prior to trial. The other five were individually questioned about their pretrial publicity.

He said if the defense has an issue with the way that jury selection was done, “Sorry,” because the legal concept of res judicata bars the court from reviewing that decision, Czopur said.

Res judicata is Latin for “the thing has been judged,” meaning the issue before the court has already been decided by another court, between the same parties, according to the dictionary.law.com web site.

Czopur said res judicata “does not bar just what was raised. It bars what could have been raised in the prior proceeding.” He said the issue of what jurors knew about Adams’ prior conviction was raised in several types of appeals, Czopur said.

“From our point of view, the issue of what these people knew was raised,” Czopur said. “It was raised in the direct appeal. It was addressed by the Ohio Supreme Court.”

Czopur said based on what he knows of the 2007-08 jury selection, those jurors who said they read news accounts of the case prior to trial said “they could put aside any information” and be fair to Adams. He said the “standard” is whether a juror can be fair and impartial, not whether they knew something.

Hanni asked whether asking specific questions to “refresh their recollections” would have made a difference.

Czopur said no. “The reason why is none of these people had any doubt in their mind about did they know of his prior conviction, did they know he was in prison.” Czopur said most indicated that they did not know about a previous conviction until prior to the Donofrio hearing.

Czopur said the allegation in the Adams case is that a fellow juror told him about Adams’ prior conviction after the jury had decided on a guilty verdict for Adams.

A couple days later, the jury returned to decide on whether to recommend the death penalty or not. They reached their decision, had lunch and a juror told another juror that Adams had been in prison before on an earlier conviction, Czopur said.

“If this information is learned after the guilty verdict, then it doesn’t matter for the purposes of this court,” Czopur said. Adams’ death sentence was later vacated by another court, Czopur said..

Czopur said even the juror who raised questions about whether fellow jurors knew too much about Adams’ earlier criminal history “said someone told me after we reached our decision and before it was announced,” Czopur said regarding the guilty verdict.

He urged the judges not to grant a new trial and said ordering Judge Donofrio to hold a second hearing is not needed because 15 of the 16 jurors and alternates testified the first time. One juror has died since the 2008 trial.

Czopur said all but the one juror who raised the questions “was very, very, very clear. They did not know about the prior” conviction, Czopur said.

Have an interesting story? Contact Ed Runyan by email at erunyan@vindy.com. Follow us on X, formerly Twitter, @TribToday.

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