Death Penalty Affirmed for Maple Heights Man Who Killed Grandparents
The Supreme Court voted 5-2 to uphold a Cuyahoga County three-judge panel’s death sentences for Denny Obermiller for the August 2010 murders of Donald and Candace Schneider. In his appeal, Obermiller claimed he sought to represent himself at the trial, but the judges tried to “wear him down” so he would accept the help of defense attorneys. He also claimed the attorneys did not adequately represent him.
Writing for the Court majority, Chief Justice Maureen O’Connor rejected Obermiller’s claims.
In a dissenting opinion, Justice William M. O’Neill wrote that while Obermiller may not have wanted to put on any mitigating evidence at the time of the trial, including possible abuse as a child by his step-grandfather, the trial court had a duty to conduct a mitigation hearing where social service providers or others who knew the family could explain what might have prompted him to murder his grandparents.
Couple Found Strangled
In August 2010, the Schneiders reported to Maple Heights police that they suspected Obermiller had stolen rare coins from their home. A few days later, one of Schneider’s granddaughters became concerned that her grandmother had not called her on her birthday and began calling around to employers, local hospitals, and relatives to locate her. She contacted Maple Heights police who conducted a welfare check and saw a body lying on the floor, a candle burning in the living room, and an unlit gas stove with the gas on.
Officers discovered Candace in the first-floor bedroom with her wrists handcuffed and a power cord wrapped around her neck. They found Donald in the second-floor bedroom with his wrists handcuffed and a bed sheet tied around his neck and face. Detectives arriving on the scene realized the home was the same property from which they received a theft complaint a few days earlier, and they noticed a television was missing.
The coroner concluded the two died from strangulation and that Candace was also raped. DNA evidence from the scene matched Obermiller with a reasonable degree of scientific certainty. The next day, relatives reported that Obermiller had contacted them, and they informed police he was driving to Licking County where police located him and arrested him after a brief foot chase.
Obermiller was indicted on 20 felony charges. He waived his right to a jury trial and pleaded guilty to all charges. After addressing Obermiller’s request to proceed without his attorneys, a three-judge panel then conducted an evidentiary hearing and found him guilty on all counts and capital specifications. In the mitigation phase, the panel accepted Obermiller’s request to not present mitigating evidence to avoid the death penalty. The charges were merged and Obermiller was sentenced on two counts of aggravated murder with capital specifications, two counts of theft, and one count each of rape, aggravated burglary, attempted aggravated arson, and burglary. The panel sentenced him to death for the two aggravated murders and 32.5 years in prison for all the other offenses.
Obermiller Challenges Conviction and Death Sentence
Obermiller raised several claims on appeal including that his rights under the U.S. Constitution’s Sixth Amendment were violated when he was denied his right to waive representation by an attorney. He also claimed the panel should have explored the possibility of allowing him to represent himself with appointed “standby counsel.”
Chief Justice O’Connor explained the Sixth Amendment affords anyone accused of a crime the right to be defended by an attorney, and the amendment also implies one has the right to choose not to be represented. She noted the Court has the responsibility to assure a person has “voluntarily, and knowingly and intelligently” elected to represent themselves.
On the first day of his trial, Obermiller requested to plead guilty and represent himself. The presiding judge asked him 13 substantive questions and told him she was not going to grant the request at that time, and the issue would be revisited once the three judges had been selected for the panel. Once the three judges were named, the panel conducted a 34-minute discussion with Obermiller about his request to waive counsel, which Obermiller claimed was unnecessary and designed to wear him down.
Obermiller eventually withdrew his request to waive representation by an attorney but explained he did not need counsel because he did not intend to put on a defense.
Chief Justice O’Connor concluded that Obermiller withdrew his request to represent himself. She also noted that no federal or state law requires those seeking to represent themselves be informed of the potential to have standby counsel appointed, and a discussion about standby counsel would not have changed the outcome of the trial.
Court Found Counsel Was Not Ineffective
Obermiller also claimed his trial counsel were ineffective in representing him. Chief Justice O’Connor noted that the two death-penalty-certified attorneys appointed to represent him filed 30 pretrial motions, and hired an investigator, a mitigation expert, and psychologist to evaluate Obermiller’s competency before the trial. But from the earliest stages of the trial through its conclusion, Obermiller refused to cooperate with the attorneys and rejected most of their advice, including prohibiting them from cross-examining 22 witnesses appearing for the state. Obermiller also waived his right to present mitigating evidence to support a life-in-prison sentence rather than the death penalty. The panel questioned the defense several times about their lack of objections, and the attorneys responded they were following the express instructions of their client.
The Court rejected the claim of ineffective counsel. Chief Justice O’Connor stated that even without the presentation of mitigating evidence by the defense, the panel considered mitigating evidence produced at the trial, which included the murder of his mother when he was 2 years old, his disruptive childhood living with relatives, and the claims that Donald Schneider was abusive to him when raising him as a teen. The panel also noted Obermiller was incarcerated at age 15 in a youth services facility where he committed a felony and spent time in prison until he was 27. One year later, he murdered the Schneiders.
The Court found the aggravating circumstances, including the rape of his grandmother and the attempt to prevent his grandparents from being witnesses against him if he were charged with theft of the rare coins, far outweighed the mitigating circumstances and let all the convictions and the death sentences stand.
Justices Terrence O’Donnell, Judith Ann Lanzinger, Sharon L. Kennedy and Judith L. French joined the opinion.
Dissent Asserts Mitigation Evidence Not Adequately Weighed
In his dissent, Justice O’Neill noted his clear opposition to capital punishment and that the law requires the Court to consider the mitigating factors in each capital case. He stated a mitigation hearing is required by law, and even if Obermiller “wants to do the equivalent of sitting in the courtroom with duct tape over his mouth,” the citizens of Ohio are entitled to the hearing “to be convinced, beyond a reasonable doubt, that they have made the right decision in terminating the life of a fellow citizen.”
He objected to the three-judge panel allowing Obermiller to waive the mitigation hearing and base its findings of the mitigating circumstances collected from witnesses testifying on the charges. He would have required a hearing.
Both Justice O’Neill and Justice Paul E. Pfeifer in separate opinions stated they join the majority in affirming Obermiller’s convictions. Justice Pfeifer joined Justice O’Neill’s portion of the opinion opposing the death sentence and requiring further exploration of the mitigating factors.
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