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Court News Ohio

Court Affirms Death Penalty in Akron Double Homicide

Image of death row inmate Dawud Spaulding

Death-row inmate Dawud Spaulding

Image of death row inmate Dawud Spaulding

Death-row inmate Dawud Spaulding

A man convicted in Summit County of killing his children’s mother and the man she was dating will remain on death row, the Supreme Court ruled today.

The Court voted 6-1, in an opinion written by Justice Judith L. French, to uphold the convictions and death sentence of Dawud Spaulding, who murdered Erika Singleton and Ernest Thomas in December 2011 outside Thomas’ Akron home. A few hours earlier in the same location, Spaulding shot Thomas’ nephew Patrick Griffin, paralyzing him.

Justice William M. O’Neill dissented based on the admission of certain “bad character” evidence during Spaulding’s trial. Justice O’Neill would set aside the guilty verdicts and return the case to the trial court to separate the charges into two trials.

Spaulding Convicted of Domestic Violence
Spaulding and Singleton started dating in 1999 or 2000. They had two children – one born in 2004 and the other born five years later.

After Singleton contacted police in April 2010 about a stolen car radio and threats from Spaulding, he was convicted of domestic violence and telecommunications harassment. He was fined $200 and received a 10-day suspended sentence. Spaulding pleaded guilty to felony domestic violence for striking Singleton and knocking her to the floor in February 2011. The court sentenced him to a three-year suspended prison term if he completed three years of community control, ordered him to have no unlawful contact with Singleton, and set conditions for visits with his children.

A magistrate approved Singleton’s request for a civil protective order against Spaulding in August 2011, but it was dismissed when she did not appear at the final hearing.

After November 2011 Incident, Felony Charges Filed
Singleton called 911 on Nov. 28, 2011, to report that Spaulding had broken into her apartment. She said Spaulding stayed there for hours, restrained her, threatened her with a knife and a gun, demanded money, then left. While officers were at the scene, Spaulding called her and said “let this go” and “I’m watching you now.” Police issued an arrest warrant for aggravated robbery, aggravated burglary, domestic violence, and kidnapping – all first-degree felonies.

Singleton moved to a battered women’s shelter, and a magistrate approved a one-year civil protection order against Spaulding. The court scheduled a final hearing on Dec. 14, when Spaulding would be permitted to respond to the allegations.

Spaulding later conveyed to police that he told Singleton he would pay her $2,500 to drop the charges and she agreed, but did not take any money. Singleton asked police on Dec. 6 if she could have the charges dismissed. She did not show up at the Dec. 14 final hearing for the protection order.

Three Shootings Take Place the Next Morning
On Dec. 14, Singleton asked her mother to watch her children, went to the movies with Thomas, and returned with him to his house. They spent some time with Griffin and one of his friends. Griffin and the friend left the house not long before 2 a.m. on Dec. 15 to buy food and sell cocaine. Griffin stepped out of the side door of the house and was shot in the back of the neck.

Police were called, and Griffin was taken to the hospital. Thomas and Singleton were driven to Singleton’s apartment about 3:30 or 4 a.m. At approximately 7:45 a.m., Singleton called her mother and said she was on her way to pick up one of her kids for school. Minutes later, Spaulding called Singleton’s mom. He asked whether Singleton had arrived and laughed. Two men discovered Singleton and Thomas lying in Thomas’ driveway at 8:01 a.m. and called 911.

Singleton was found holding luggage and a purse, and Thomas was found next to his running car with the door open and a piece of luggage sitting near the car. More luggage and a bag of clothes were in the car’s backseat. Singleton and Thomas both died from single gunshot wounds to the back of the head. Although the weapon used to shoot Griffin, Singleton, and Thomas was not found, officers recovered shell casings after each shooting, which were determined to have been shot from the same gun.

Jury Convicts Spaulding, Sentences Him to Death
Spaulding was charged with two counts of aggravated murder and with attempted murder, felonious assault, domestic violence, menacing by stalking, intimidation of a crime victim or witness, violating a protection order, and having weapons while under a disability, along with multiple firearm and death-penalty specifications.

The jury convicted Spaulding of all counts and specifications except for menacing by stalking and the capital specification that alleged Spaulding purposely killed Singleton to stop her from testifying as a witness in another case. The trial court sentenced Spaulding to death plus 32 1/2 years on the remaining counts.

Spaulding appealed to the Ohio Supreme Court, raising 14 issues. The Court is mandated to hear all death-penalty appeals.

Court Rejects Argument for Separate Trials
Before trial, the court denied a motion from Spaulding to separate the charges related to the murders of Singleton and Thomas from those concerning Griffin’s attempted murder. In this appeal, Spaulding asserted that the domestic violence and menacing-by-stalking charges should have been separated from the aggravated-murder and attempted-murder offenses.

Justice French noted that evidence of Spaulding’s past domestic violence was necessary to prove the domestic violence and menacing-by-stalking charges, and the jury’s exposure to that evidence might prejudice Spaulding on the other charges. The Court determined that the trial court would have been justified in severing the domestic violence and menacing-by-stalking counts if Spaulding had specifically requested it and provided the trial court with adequate information about the prejudicial effect of having one trial for all the offenses.

“That said, the trial court did not plainly err by permitting these counts to be tried together,” she wrote. “The joinder of these counts was not erroneous on its face at the outset of trial. And even if it had been, given the substantial evidence of Spaulding’s guilt, the alleged error was not outcome determinative.”

She pointed out that Griffin identified Spaulding as his shooter and that a witness saw Spaulding approaching Singleton and Thomas in Thomas’ driveway right before the murders. In addition, ballistics evidence showed the same gun was used in both incidents, she noted. 

Prior Convictions, Magistrate Testimony Did Not Alter Outcome
Spaulding also challenged the admission of testimony about his 2001 conviction for committing domestic violence against his mother and sister. Justice French explained that the existence of this conviction was relevant and admissible because it supported both the domestic violence charge, which required proof of at least two other domestic violence convictions, and the menacing-by-stalking charge, which is a more serious felony if the state can show a history of violence. However, Justice French reasoned, the state had no need to introduce the specific facts underlying the 2001 conviction to prove those charges.

“Unlike the details of Spaulding’s past domestic violence against Singleton, the details of this offense are not probative of whether she believed that Spaulding would cause her physical harm,” Justice French wrote. “Under these circumstances, the risk that the jury may have been ‘prejudicially influenced by details of the prior crime’ clearly outweighed any probative value of the evidence.”

However, enough other evidence supported Spaulding’s convictions that he could not demonstrate that this particular evidence infringed on his substantial rights, the Court concluded.

Spaulding also contended that the trial court wrongly allowed court journal entries about his prior convictions to be entered as evidence at trial. Based on a 1997 U.S. Supreme Court decision, he argued he instead should have been able to stipulate to the convictions. Although the Ohio Supreme Court has a case pending about whether the federal ruling applies to prosecutions under state law, Justice French rejected Spaulding’s claim, pointing out that he neither offered to stipulate to his convictions during his trial nor objected to the court allowing the jury to consider the journal entries.

In addition, Spaulding argued that permitting two magistrates to testify about Singleton’s hearings to obtain civil protection orders against him was improper because the jury may have given their statements greater weight as court officials. This assertion and Spaulding’s remaining arguments fail, the Court concluded.

Court’s Independent Evaluation Reinforces Convictions and Sentence
As required by statute, the Court independently reviewed the death sentence for appropriateness and proportionality. The evidence in this case supported the aggravating circumstance that the aggravated murders of Singleton and Thomas and Griffin’s attempted murder “were part of a single course of conduct that involved the purposeful killing or attempt to kill two or more people,” Justice French explained.

The Court considered various mitigating factors, such as Spaulding’s family background, noting that he and his sister had a fairly stable upbringing with their parents, but Spaulding’s older half-brothers introduced him to drug use and dealing, and he felt devastated when his father died in 2010. Though these and other issues together were entitled to some weight, the Court determined that the aggravating circumstance outweighed the mitigating factors beyond a reasonable doubt.

Last, the Court ruled that the sentence of death in this case was proportionate to other similar death-penalty cases and upheld Spaulding’s convictions and death sentence.

Chief Justice Maureen O’Connor and Justices Paul E. Pfeifer, Terrence O’Donnell, Judith Ann Lanzinger, and Sharon L. Kennedy joined Justice French’s opinion.

Dissent Would Order Separate Trials
Justice O’Neill stated that the evidence of Spaulding’s 2001 conviction for domestic violence and the testimony from the two magistrates amounted to “inadmissible character evidence.” The majority, he noted, “stretches the imagination to the breaking point” by concluding that the 2001 conviction involving violence against his mother and sister had no influence on the jury’s decision to convict Spaulding. He also believes that the majority used the wrong legal standard in deciding that the magistrates’ testimony was not “outcome determinative” in the trial.

“This court rejected ‘outcome determinative’ as the test for plain error a long time ago. The correct standard is that when a criminal defendant raises an error for the first time on appeal, that person must ‘demonstrate a reasonable probability that the error resulted in prejudice — the same deferential standard for reviewing ineffective assistance of counsel claims,’” Justice O’Neill wrote, quoting a 2015 Ohio Supreme Court case that references a 2004 U.S. Supreme Court decision.

“Put simply, ‘a reasonable probability that … the result of the proceeding would have been different,’ … is a little more could have than would have,” he reasoned. “And that is why the [U.S.] Supreme Court clarified that a ‘reasonable probability’ is ‘a probability sufficient to undermine confidence in the outcome,’ … instead of a probability sufficient to show that the outcome was wrong.”

Justice O’Neill also determined that Spaulding’s lawyers were ineffective because they did not stipulate to or object to court journal entries about Spaulding’s prior drug-trafficking and domestic-violence convictions. To the extent that evidence of the convictions was needed to prove other charges, Justice O’Neill concluded that the trial court should have severed the attempted- and aggravated-murder offenses from the remaining charges. To ensure a “‘fair trial and substantial justice,’” he would vacate Spaulding’s convictions and sentence and return the case to the trial court for separate trials.

2013-0536. State v. Spaulding, Slip Opinion No. 2016-Ohio-8126.

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