COLUMBUS, Ohio (AP) — The governor rejected clemency Wednesday for a condemned Cleveland killer who stabbed his victim 17 times, overruling a rare plea for mercy from the prosecutor overseeing his case and support from nearly half of a parole board that previously voted unanimously against the inmate.
Gov. John Kasich’s decision left death row prisoner Billy Slagle with few options before his Aug. 7 execution date for killing neighbor Mari Anne Pope in a 1987 burglary while two children she was watching were home.
Kasich followed the recommendation of the Ohio Parole Board, which voted 6-4 last week to turn down Slagle’s request for clemency. As is his custom, Kasich didn’t explain his decision in his statement.
The entire board ruled against mercy two years ago for Slagle, but that was before the election of new Cuyahoga County prosecutor Tim McGinty and a change in his office’s approach to capital punishment.
McGinty, who is applying new criteria to both old and new death penalty cases, has said he doesn’t believe his office could obtain a death sentence for Slagle today. McGinty pushed for life without parole, arguing that without that option in 1987, jurors trying to ensure that Slagle would never go free chose the only option before them: a death sentence.
The parole board didn’t buy McGinty’s argument. “The egregious nature of Slagle’s crime and circumstances surrounding it outweigh the mitigation present here,” the board wrote in its ruling, which called the slaying “unprovoked, merciless, and completely senseless.”
Attorneys for Slagle, 44, long argued his sentence should be commuted to life without parole, citing his age — at 18, he was the minimum age for execution in Ohio when the crime happened — and a long history of drug and alcohol abuse.
“Billy was exposed to alcohol from the womb to the crime,” Joe Wilhelm, a federal public defender, said at a July 8 hearing.
Before Kasich’s decision, Wilhelm had said he was encouraged that four members of the parole board had voted to spare Slagle.
Wilhelm said Wednesday that he was considering options. He said Slagle does not have any pending appeals.
“I’ve said everything I can, and it didn’t have any effect,” Wilhelm said. “We’re all just very shocked by it, frankly.”
McGinty said he respected Kasich’s decision and the review process that led to it.
The woman whose children Pope was watching the night she was killed welcomed Kasich’s announcement.
“Justice has been served,” Lauretta Keeton of Brook Park in suburban Cleveland said in a phone interview.
“It has taken too long,” said Keeton, 57, a retired medical assistant. “This should have been settled a long time ago.”
The parole board members who supported clemency cited McGinty’s change of position, with one noting that Slagle’s “age and immaturity at the time of offense significantly mitigate his sentence.”
In 1996, Ohio law changed to allow jurors to choose between execution and life without parole. In 2005, lawmakers added a provision allowing prosecutors to pursue life without parole in non-death penalty cases.
“Slagle’s case is a close call,” Cuyahoga County assistant prosecutor Matthew Meyer told the parole board at the July 8 hearing. “We can’t in confidence tell you that had it happened today, this would be a death case.”
Meyer said the recommendation for mercy was not meant to diminish the heinous facts of Pope’s death.
Friends of Pope told the parole board that sparing Slagle would dishonor the jury’s original sentence.
It’s unclear whether a sitting Ohio prosecutor has ever asked that a death row inmate under his office have the sentence commuted.
Cuyahoga County has long had a reputation for heavy use of capital punishment indictments with relatively low numbers of death sentences. McGinty had promised to reduce the number of death penalty charges when he ran for the office.
Andrew Welsh-Huggins can be reached on Twitter at https://twitter.com/awhcolumbus.