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Court News Ohio
Court News Ohio

Death Penalty Upheld for Cleveland Man Convicted of Murder in Three-County Crime Spree

Image of death-row inmate Jeremiah Jackson

Death-row inmate Jeremiah Jackson.

Image of death-row inmate Jeremiah Jackson

Death-row inmate Jeremiah Jackson.

The Ohio Supreme Court today affirmed the convictions and death sentence imposed on Jeremiah Jackson, the Cleveland man who murdered Tracy Pickryl in 2009 during the course of six robberies and other crimes in Cleveland, Sandusky, and Lorain.

The court’s opinion, written by Justice Terrence O’Donnell, upholds the decision of the Cuyahoga County Court of Common Pleas.

On June 2, 2009, Jackson went to the house of a friend, Stanley Bentley, to retrieve a bag with a gun inside that he thought he had left there. The men argued, and Jackson shot Bentley in the abdomen and fled.

Then on June 15, Jackson and an accomplice robbed the Super Wash Laundry in Cleveland. Later that night, Jackson participated in the robbery of a Cleveland bar. And during the early morning hours of June 17, Jackson and others robbed another Cleveland bar, a Sandusky hotel, and a Lorain drugstore.

Jackson arrived early the next morning at the Soap Opera Laundry in Cleveland where Pickryl and Christy Diaz were working. Jackson pulled a gun and demanded money. He grabbed Pickryl’s necklace, then her bracelet. Pickryl pulled back, and when she turned toward Jackson, he shot her. He then shot at Diaz and left.

Police located and arrested Jackson on June 20. The charges against him included aggravated murder for Pickryl’s death with multiple death-penalty specifications, aggravated robberies, the attempted murders of Bentley and Diaz, felonious assault, and kidnapping. He pled not guilty.

Jackson waived his right to a trial by jury. A three-judge panel found him guilty of nearly all of the charges and sentenced him to death.

In today’s opinion, the court considered whether the grand jury in Cuyahoga County had the power to indict Jackson for the robbery of the hotel in Erie County or the robbery of the drugstore in Lorain County.

Justice O’Donnell explained that Ohio law allows a grand jury to indict a person for offenses that take place outside the county in which the offender is being indicted as long as the offenses are part of the same course of criminal conduct that happened in the county of the indictment. The evidence showed that the six robberies committed between June 15 and 18 were part of a course of criminal conduct in three neighboring counties, so the grand jury was permitted to indict Jackson for the Erie County and Lorain County crimes along with the Cuyahoga County offenses, he wrote.

However, Justice O’Donnell determined that the indictment itself did not properly specify which counts in the 42-count indictment occurred in Erie and Lorain counties. While the preamble to Count 1 mentions Erie and Lorain counties, he noted, the counts specifically related to the crimes in those counties do not state where the offenses took place.

Nonetheless, Jackson had not objected to the indictment during his trial, and because the state presented a detailed “bill of particulars” that included the location of the offenses, Justice O’Donnell explained that the error had not affected the outcome of the trial.

The court rejected claims that the presiding judge exhibited judicial bias against Jackson and interfered with defense counsel by conducting a hearing to evaluate whether the defense was justified in not raising a claim that Jackson was mentally retarded and therefore could not be executed pursuant to the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Atkins v. Virginia (2002).

“Based upon Jackson’s IQ scores …, the trial court was justified in inquiring into whether an evaluation of Jackson’s mental abilities was appropriate,” Justice O’Donnell wrote. “The trial court’s decision to conduct an evidentiary hearing on the Atkins issue did not prejudice Jackson and could have been favorable to his defense. No evidence was presented showing that Jackson was mentally retarded. Thus, even assuming that the trial court overstepped its bounds in conducting this abbreviated hearing, no prejudice occurred.” 

The court also addressed parts of the prosecutor’s closing argument during the penalty phase of the trial. The prosecutor argued that Jackson had tried to murder Diaz to eliminate her as a witness to Pickryl’s murder. But although the prosecutor could comment on Jackson’s motive for trying to kill Diaz, the prosecutor did more than that in this case, Justice O’Donnell wrote. By speculating that Jackson would have been charged with a witness-murder specification if he had killed Diaz, the prosecutor shifted the focus from conduct that had been charged and proven at Jackson’s trial to factors that Jackson was never charged with, Justice O’Donnell concluded.

“The prosecutor’s argument in this case was … improper,” he wrote. “Nevertheless, the three-judge panel was not misled by the prosecutor’s argument and understood that they were not also considering the witness-murder specification in imposing sentence. Moreover, there is no showing that the panel considered anything other than the relevant, material, and competent evidence in arriving at its decision.”

Justice O’Donnell pointed out that in the three-judge panel’s review of the mitigating circumstances, it considered evidence that Jackson had been physically and sexually abused but chose to give these factors no weight in its sentencing. However, Justice O’Donnell concluded that the panel had misstated in its sentencing opinion that the only evidence of abuse was Jackson’s own claims, because Jackson’s parents admitted they beat and whipped him as a child. The justice explained that the error would be cured by the Supreme Court’s independent review of Jackson’s sentence.

The court rejected Jackson’s other claims of error by the trial court.

Independently reviewing Jackson’s death sentence for appropriateness and proportionality as required by statute, the court gave considerable weight to his “cognitive impairments and his borderline range of intellectual functioning” and some weight to his history of drug and alcohol dependence and other evidence. However, in upholding Jackson’s death sentence, Justice O’Donnell wrote, “Jackson’s murder of Pickryl during an aggravated robbery and his course of conduct in murdering Pickryl and attempting to murder Diaz are egregious aggravating circumstances. Jackson’s mitigating evidence has little significance in comparison.”

Justice O’Donnell’s opinion was joined by Chief Justice Maureen O’Connor and Justices Paul E. Pfeifer and Sharon L. Kennedy. Justices Judith Ann Lanzinger and Judith L. French concurred in judgment only. Justice William M. O’Neill dissented.

In his dissent, Justice O’Neill reiterated his view that the death penalty is constitutionally prohibited because it is cruel and unusual punishment. He noted that he does not expect the court to adopt this view in the near future, but he thinks the court soon will be forced “to recognize that Ohio’s death penalty reaches too far, to too many crimes and to too many criminals.” 

In this case, the trial court held a hearing to establish why Jackson’s lawyers chose not to pursue an Atkins hearing to determine whether he was intellectually disabled. Had Jackson been found to have a significant intellectual disability, he could not have received the death penalty because the U.S. Supreme Court prohibits the execution of mentally retarded individuals.

“In short, the trial court chose to sit second chair for the defense,” Justice O’Neill wrote. “Admittedly, trial courts have great latitude in managing the cases over which they preside. But this hearing had one justification only: to protect a yet-to-be-imposed death sentence from reversal in a subsequent appeal. There is simply no other reason to even contemplate such a hearing, and that should give pause to any reviewing court that is concerned about the potential prejudgment of a case and the sanctity of the attorney-client relationship.”

“[W]hile prejudice to Jackson may not be obvious from the record, the trial court’s action calls its impartiality into question,” he added.

Justice O’Neill also noted the mitigating factors in this case, such as Jackson’s low intelligence, difficult background, and serious substance dependence, are significant. He contended that the court refuses to “truly engage in an independent reweighing of death sentences” and that this case, while terrible, should not be a death-penalty case.

2010-0944. State v. Jackson, Slip Opinion No. 2014-Ohio-3707.

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Please note: Opinion summaries are prepared by the Office of Public Information for the general public and news media. Opinion summaries are not prepared for every opinion, but only for noteworthy cases. Opinion summaries are not to be considered as official headnotes or syllabi of court opinions. The full text of this and other court opinions are available online.

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