Court Rejects Murder Conviction Appeal
The Supreme Court voted 6-1 to uphold the conviction of Bennie Adams for the 1985 murder of Youngstown State University student Gina Tenney. In 2015, the Supreme Court returned Adams’ case to a Mahoning County Common Pleas Court for a new sentencing hearing, noting that the state is prohibited by the U.S. Constitution’s double jeopardy clause from seeking the death penalty on remand.
In a per curiam opinion, the Supreme Court today explained that while his original appeal was pending at the Supreme Court, Adams filed a motion with the Seventh District Court of Appeals to reopen the appeal of his conviction based on a claim of ineffective assistance of appellate counsel. The Seventh District denied the request, and he appealed to the Supreme Court, which because of the claim was mandated to hear his case.
Adams Challenges Autopsy Report’s Admission
Adams claimed his appellate attorneys were ineffective because they failed to challenge errors made by his trial counsel.
He claimed his rights under the U.S. Constitution’s Sixth Amendment were violated when Dr. Humphrey Germaniuk testified as the state’s expert witness on the results of Tenney’s autopsy. Germaniuk was a substitute witness in place of the coroner who performed the autopsy, and Adams asserted the state violated the “confrontation clause” of the Sixth Amendment because he did not have the ability to confront and challenge the testimony of the coroner. He argued his appellate counsel was ineffective because they didn’t object to admitting the coroner’s report without having the original doctor present.
The Court explained that at the time Adams filed his objections, the law surrounding the admissibility of autopsy reports prepared by medical examiners not testifying in the case was unsettled. Subsequently, the Court in its 2014 State v. Maxwell decision determined an autopsy report was a “business record” and could be admitted as evidence in a case even if the report’s author was not available to be confronted.
That ruling not only cleared the way for the report to be admitted, but also allowed Germaniuk as an expert witness to testify on the contents of it and offer his own opinions, the Court stated. And because Germaniuk was available, he was able to be confronted by Adams’ attorneys at trial. The Court stated since it was permissible for the report and Germaniuk’s testimony to be admitted, an objection to it by his appellate attorneys would have failed. The Court concluded the appellate attorneys could not be deemed ineffective for not raising the issue on appeal.
Errors by Trial Counsel Alleged
Adams identified six objections that his trial attorneys should have raised. Because his appellate attorneys did not claim those mistakes were made, he maintained his appellate counsel provided ineffective assistance.
During the trial, a friend of Tenney’s was to testify about her fear of Adams, and the trial judge decide that he, rather than the attorneys, would question the witness. In his first direct appeal of his conviction, Adams claimed the judge interjected himself into the proceedings in a way that was overly favorable to the state. Adams argued his appellate attorneys failed to raise that argument in his appeal.
The Court noted that while Adams’ appellate counsel did not raise it, the Court on its own considered the issue when it heard his appeal, and it rejected the argument.
Adams also faults his trial counsel for failing to object to statements made by Detective William Blanchard, including that Blanchard mentioned the name of a victim of Adams in an unrelated rape. Blanchard only stated the name and did not indicate she was a rape victim. Adams’ trial counsel objected to Blanchard’s statements and sought a mistrial, which the trial court denied, and the Supreme Court affirmed the denial on appeal.
While Adams’ appellate attorneys may not have raised the issue, the Court addressed it during the appeal, and concluded that appellate counsel was not ineffective for not raising an issue the Court already addressed.
The Court also rejected Adams’ contention that the trial court never stated its findings of facts on the record, but the Court stated that Adams did not explain how that prejudiced his case. He also objected to his trial attorneys’ failure to remove two prospective jurors, which the Court noted it addressed and rejected during his direct appeal.
Additionally, he argued that the evidence against him was insufficient to convict him of aggravated murder in the course of committing a rape or kidnapping. He claimed his appellate counsel did not challenge the sufficiency of evidence during his direct appeal.
The Court disagreed, writing that the matter was considered during his direct appeal.
“Notwithstanding the lack of a proposition of law on the issue, we addressed the sufficiency of evidence on direct appeal in the context of reviewing the aggravating circumstance and found sufficient evident to prove that Adams committed aggravated murder in the course of rape and kidnapping,” the Court stated.
According to Mahoning County Common Pleas Court records, Adams is scheduled to be resentenced in June.
Chief Justice Maureen O’Connor and Justices Paul E. Pfeifer, Terrence O’Donnell, Judith Ann Lanzinger, Sharon L. Kennedy, and Judith L. French joined the opinion.
Justice William M. O’Neill dissented without an opinion.
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