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Repeal new law that could set killers free

Killer Jacob LaRosa never faced the death penalty in his brutal slaying of his kind-hearted, elderly neighbor, but at least his family could take solace in knowing LaRosa’s conviction and sentencing meant he would never, ever again be free.

That is, until legislators recently passed a new retroactive law requiring that all juvenile offenders someday get a chance at parole. The grandson of LaRosa’s victim, 94-year-old Marie Belcastro, is right to be enraged by what he calls a “miscarriage of justice.”

Senate Bill 256 took effect earlier this month decreeing that just about anybody in prison for life who committed murder as a juvenile must be given a chance at parole.

Local lawmakers Rep. Michael O’Brien, D-Warren, and then-Rep. Gil Blair, D-Mineral Ridge, voted no.

The law applies to previous crimes and sentences, regardless of when a juvenile committed a crime or when they were sentenced, and forgetting that the sentence was perfectly legal under the Ohio and U.S. Supreme Courts at the time of the sentencing.

Brian Kirk, the grandson of Niles murder victim Belcastro, lashed out recently, saying the legislation should have been named the “Teenage Killer Protection Act.”

We agree.

What were lawmakers and our governor thinking?

Yes, we understand kids make mistakes and, generally speaking, people often deserve a second chance. But in cases like the brutal beating, attempted rape and mutilation of Belcastro leave no question that the offender, 15 at the time, deserves no opportunity ever to step foot outside prison and run the risk of ever again committing such carnage.

In explaining his sentence in October 2018, Trumbull Common Pleas Judge W. Wyatt McKay outlined the court’s effort to balance LaRosa’s age and possible mental deficits to the severity of the crime committed. He said there was evidence the teen likely would commit future crimes if ever released from prison.

At the young age of 15, LaRosa already had numerous dealings with the Trumbull County Juvenile Court and was in various drug and alcohol programs before being arrested for Belcastro’s murder.

At that time, even his parents had begun locking the doors within their house at night to keep LaRosa from stealing from family members. His stepfather began sleeping with a gun under his pillow because he was concerned about the teen’s violent tendencies.

At the time of LaRosa’s sentencing, Trumbull County Assistant Prosecutor Christopher Becker said this: “There’s no question that if he had been over 18 he would have gotten from any jury the death penalty. We couldn’t give him the death penalty, but Judge (W. Wyatt) McKay thoughtfully, carefully and professionally examined all of the factors and gave the only sentence that he could make.”

Not everyone can be rehabilitated. And frankly, juveniles convicted of such heinous crimes already have been given a second chance, because, in Ohio, they do not face the death penalty.

Further, the process of converting a juvenile case to adult court is arduous, with many hoops created for the very reason of protecting juveniles like this.

But once they’ve cleared all the hurdles, it’s because it’s been proven that the defendant deserves to be tried in adult court.

Tragically, LaRosa isn’t the only local juvenile to have committed such a horrible act before the age of 18.

Another that quickly comes to mind is Timothy Combs of Warren. Combs was just 17 when he and his co-defendant, Danny Lee Hill — 18 at the time — stopped 12-year-old Raymond Fife in 1985, in a wooded area near Palmyra Road SW, as the boy rode his bike to a Boy Scout meeting.

They brutally beat, strangled and mutilated Raymond, leaving him for dead. The boy died two days later.

Combs died in November 2018 at age 50 in prison where he had spent every minute since his conviction. Hill remains in prison, continuing to fight the death sentence that had been imposed 35 years ago.

Under the new retroactive state law, if Combs still were alive today, he, too, would have been eligible for parole.

Belcastro’s grandson is vowing to fight for the law’s repeal.

Good!

The law should be repealed. Like other Ohio cases, appeals to convictions and life sentences handed down to juvenile offenders should be heard only on merits or trial error. This blanket opportunity to get out of jail must not stand.

After already enduring such pain and suffering in the deaths of their loved ones, don’t victims’ families deserve peace in knowing they never again must endure the sadness and frustration of facing parole hearings or, worse, the killer’s release?

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