Court News Ohio
Court News Ohio
Court News Ohio

Eleventh District: Death Sentence Appeal of Accomplice to Ohio’s Only Woman on Death Row Rejected

Image of death-row inmate Nathaniel Jackson

Death-row inmate Nathaniel Jackson

Image of death-row inmate Nathaniel Jackson

Death-row inmate Nathaniel Jackson

The death sentence of a man who conspired with the only woman currently on Ohio’s death row to kill her ex-husband for insurance money was upheld by a divided Ohio appeals court.

While rejecting two separate complaints brought to the court by Nathaniel Jackson, the Eleventh District Court of Appeals noted that Jackson still has another appeal pending before the Ohio Supreme Court. Jackson is seeking a third resentencing or new trial to overturn his 2002 conviction and death sentence.

Jackson’s appeals follow those of Donna Roberts. In 2001, Jackson was in prison, and Robert Fingerhut had been residing with Roberts, his ex-wife. Jackson and Roberts exchanged letters and phone calls plotting to kill Fingerhut when Jackson was released so she could collect more than $500,000 in life insurance proceeds. Jackson was convicted in November 2002 aggravated murder, aggravated burglary and aggravated robbery. Jackson confessed to the murders but claimed it was in self defense.

Donna Roberts case

The 11th District had previously ordered the resentencing of both Roberts and Jackson citing an improper role the Trumbull County Prosecutor’s Office played in the original death sentence. In August 2006, the Supreme Court vacated Roberts’ death sentence based on her argument that prosecutors, without the inclusion of the defense attorneys, aided the presiding judge, John M. Stuard, in preparing the court’s sentencing opinion. Roberts was resentenced in 2007 and again sentenced to death. Roberts challenged the merits of the  2007 sentence, and in October 2013, the Ohio Supreme Court ordered a third sentencing hearing for Roberts. In April 2014, Judge Ronald Rice sentenced Roberts to death for the third time.

Jackson’s appeal of first trial
This week, the appeals court ruled on the same day on two separate Jackson appeals. The first, filed in 2008, challenges the Trumbull County Common Pleas Court’s rejection of his request for a new trial. The other is the trial court 2013 rejection of his postconviction relief petition asking the court to vacate its ruling.

Based on the Roberts ruling, Jackson filed his own appeal and in August 2012 he was given a new sentencing hearing where again Judge Stuard sentenced him to death. Judge Stuard retired in 2012 and died in 2013. Jackson appealed his first death sentence to the Ohio Supreme Court in 2003 and it was upheld. He made his second direct appeal to the Supreme Court of his August 2012 death sentence and his appeal is still pending.

In the cases before the 11th District, Jackson argued the 2006 Roberts case provided him new information about his original 2002 trial. In his first trial, Jackson filed a motion to suppress his confession. Jackson claimed that the Roberts appeal revealed that not only did the prosecutors meet improperly with Judge Stuard on the sentencing opinion, but the prosecutors also assisted in the judge’s ruling overruling his motion to suppress his confession.

Writing for the appeals court Judge Timothy P. Cannon noted the trial court properly overturned the motion to suppress concluding that Jackson was advised of his Miranda rights and voluntarily waived the rights, and did not request counsel before making a statement to police. He noted the Supreme Court also upheld the trial court’s ruling in Jackson’s direct appeal of his conviction.

Jackson argued that it was not until 2008 that he learned the prosecutors assisted the judge in preparing the entry to overrule the motion, and filed his motion for a new trial. A motion for a new trial is to be filed 120 days after the original verdict, but the time can be extended if the convicted person can prove “he was unavoidably prevented from discovering the evidence.”

Prosecutors argued that if Jackson wanted to challenge their actions in the original motion to suppress, it had to come shortly after the information was discovered in 2006. Jackson argued he didn’t know precisely about the motion to suppress until disciplinary hearings took place after the 2006 ruling in the Roberts case.

“We are not persuaded by (Jackson’s) argument that, while he knew as early as the Ohio Supreme Court’s 2006 decision in Roberts that assistant prosecutors from the Trumbull County Prosecutor’s Office drafted some judgment entries, he had no reason to know that (the prosecutor’s office) drafted the judgment entry overruling his motion to suppress until his counsel was directed to them during disciplinary proceedings pending against Judge Stuard.”

The appeals court concluded Jackson waited too long to file for the new trial.

Jacksons appeal of both trials

The appeals court then turned to Jackson’s postconviction appeal. He cited 19 grounds for vacating his death sentences. Judge Cannon noted that 18 of the arguments stem from Judge Stuard’s original 2002 conviction and one from the 2012 resentencing.

Ohio law requires a death penalty postconviction petition be filed within 180 days after a trial transcript is filed with the Ohio Supreme Court. Citing the 12th District Court of Appeals case State v. Piesciuk (2010), Judge Cannon said the 180-day clock does not restart when a second trial is ordered. The appeals court ruled that all Jackson’s 18 claims surrounding the first trial were filed too late and would not be considered.

The only argument the appeals court considered was Jackson’s claim that the trial court during the resentencing failed to hear any additional evidence. The trial court rejected that claim based on res judicata, writing that Jackson is making the identical argument in his appeal pending before the Supreme Court. Because the argument is before the high court, the appeals court said it was not proper for it or the trial court to consider his petition.

Judge Diane V. Grendell concurred in the decisions.

Judge Colleen Mary O’Toole dissented in both decisions. Judge O’Toole said similar to Roberts, she would vacate Jackson’s death sentence and remand the matter back to the trial court for a third sentencing hearing.

“The record establishes that the same improper drafting procedures involving the sentencing entry which occurred in Roberts’ case took place in this case as well. Like Roberts’ case, this case also involves a very serious matter as (Jackson’s) life in on the line,” she wrote.

Because she would order a resentencing hearing, Judge O’Toole argued that the postconviction relief petition should not be considered by the appeals court. She wrote that the petition should be considered after a third sentencing was conducted and if there was an appeal filed after it.

State v. Jackson, 2015-Ohio-6; 2015-Ohio-7
Civil Appeal From: Trumbull County Court of Common Pleas
Judgment Appealed From Is: Affirmed
Date of Judgment Entry on Appeal: January 5, 2015

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