Death Sentence Affirmed for Man Who Robbed and Killed Convenience Store Clerk
The Ohio Supreme Court today affirmed the death sentence of Anthony Belton of Toledo for the 2008 murder of a 34-year-old convenience store clerk who Belton shot in the back of the head at close range after the clerk gave him cash and prepaid phone cards.
In a 6-1 vote, the Supreme Court rejected 20 claims by Belton that his death sentence was inappropriate and he was unfairly convicted of the crime. Writing for the Court majority, Justice Sharon L. Kennedy stated that a three-judge panel accepted Belton’s no-contest plea and appropriately weighed all the evidence before sentencing him to death.
Clerk Killed in Early Morning Robbery
In August 2008, Matthew Dugan was working the night shift at a Toledo BP Station where four security cameras were in operation. Security video showed Belton entering and exiting the store three times that morning, minutes apart. The third time, Belton walked up to the counter with two bottled drinks and then pointed a gun at Dugan. Dugan gave $600 to Belton and handed over other items. Belton motioned toward the prepaid phone cards behind Dugan. When the clerk turned around in that direction, Belton shot him.
Information led police to Belton, who was arrested along with two other men. Belton gave varying accounts to police about the events of that morning. With Belton’s help, police searched the yard of the house where he was living and found a 9 mm gun. Belton confessed to the crime, maintaining the gun went off by accident. He said he split the robbery money with two other men who assisted him, and then he went to Burger King for food and a local mall to buy sneakers with the money.
Defendant Waives Jury Trial
Belton was indicted in August 2008 on one count of aggravated murder and two counts of aggravated robbery, and each charge included the possibility of an additional punishment, called a specification, for using a firearm. Belton waived his right to a jury trial and pleaded no contest before a three-judge panel, which found him guilty. He was sentenced to death for the aggravated murder, 10 years for aggravated robbery, and three years for the firearm specifications.
Belton Challenges Process
Belton made numerous pretrial motions that a trial court considered and rejected. Belton claimed because of the rejection he had no choice but to plead no contest and opt to have his case heard before a three-judge panel.
Justice Kennedy noted that capital defendants who waive a jury trial and plead guilty cannot challenge the rulings on their pretrial motions on appeal, but defendants such as Belton, who plead no contest, can. Belton made several motions, which included seeking to show a jury a video of the conditions of a maximum security facility, asking a jury to consider mercy when sentencing, and limiting the prosecutor’s ability to discuss the nature and circumstances of the crime in the sentencing phase.
Justice Kennedy wrote the trial judge correctly rejected six of the seven motions, but was wrong to reject Belton’s argument that the court should agree to limit the discussion about the nature and circumstances of the crime unless Belton presented the information in an attempt to reduce his punishment.
Belton claimed the rejection of the pretrial motions undermined his right to a jury trial, making his wavier of a jury trial involuntary and his trial by a three-judge panel improper. Justice Kennedy wrote that Belton’s written waiver of the jury trial made after the denial of the motions was “knowing, intelligent, and voluntary,” and that the effects of the single motion to limit how the sentencing phase should proceed is not enough to change his sentence.
Claim That Death Penalty Law Repealed Rejected
Belton also claimed he should not receive the death penalty because the Ohio General Assembly effectively repealed it in 2011 when it changed the felony sentencing law by directing the courts to use “the minimum sanctions that the court determines accomplish those purposes without imposing an unnecessary burden on state and local governments.”
Justice Kennedy explained that Belton claims a life sentence with parole achieves the same goals as a death sentence at a far lower cost, and that makes it the minimum sanction necessary to meet the change in the law. However, the change did not directly state it was the legislature’s intention to repeal the death penalty, and she noted the law considers cost only one factor when determining what should be the minimum sanction.
“In some cases then, a sentencing court may determine that the death penalty is, in fact, the minimum sanction that will accomplish its purpose of punishing the offender,” she wrote. “And the fact that the General Assembly has not expressly repealed R.C. 2929.03 or 2929.04 indicates its judgment that the death penalty may be appropriate in at least some aggravated-murder cases.”
Only a Jury Should Decide Punishment, Belton Argues
Belton also claimed that U.S. Supreme Court rulings require a jury to decide every fact necessary to put a defendant to death, and while he agreed to have the three-judge panel determine if his crime justified a death penalty sentence, it is still up to a jury to decide if he should actually receive the penalty.
Justice Kennedy wrote that in some states a trial judge was permitted to impose the death sentence after a jury heard the evidence and ruled not to impose it. In those cases, a defendant was subjected to a greater penalty by a judge than by the jury. She explained that is not the case in Ohio, and a judge cannot impose a greater sentence than recommended by a jury. Because Belton waived his right to a jury, and the three-judge panel has the same obligations as a jury to weigh all the evidence before deciding a penalty, there is no right to have a jury make the ultimate sentencing decision.
Evidence Justified Death Penalty
As part of a capital case, the three-judge panel must weigh mitigating circumstances against aggravating circumstances to determine if a death sentence is justified. As part of his mitigation, attorneys for Belton presented evidence of a troubled childhood, including his mother’s arrest for drug possession. He was also sent to California to live with his father until he became a troubled teen who joined a gang and started to abuse drugs and alcohol. A psychologist diagnosed him with a form of depression, and a counselor at the Lucas County Corrections Center where Belton was jailed for three years as he prepared for his trial found Belton to be well behaved and adapting to incarceration.
Justice Kennedy explained the Court independently weighed the mitigating factors and aggravating circumstances, and concluded that while the mitigating factors had substantial weight, the aggravating circumstances outweighed the mitigating factors beyond a reasonable doubt.
“That said, Belton shot Dugan at close range, in the back of the head, even though Dugan cooperated with Belton’s demands for money and phone cards. Belton then left Dugan to die and went shoe shopping,” she wrote.
Chief Justice Maureen O’Connor and Justices Paul E. Pfeifer, Terrence O’Donnell, Judith Ann Lanzinger, and Judith L. French joined the opinion.
Justice William M. O’Neill concurred with affirming the conviction, but dissented to the death penalty citing his reasoning in the Court’s 2013 State v. Wogenstahl decision. In his dissent in Wogenstahl, Justice O’Neill concluded that the death penalty violates the U.S. Constitution’s prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment.
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