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Court News Ohio

Court Affirms Erie County Man’s Death Sentence

Image of death-row inmate Curtis L. Clinton

Death-row inmate Curtis L. Clinton

Image of death-row inmate Curtis L. Clinton

Death-row inmate Curtis L. Clinton

The Ohio Supreme Court affirmed the convictions and death sentence of a Sandusky man who murdered a 23-year-old woman and her two young children and committed other offenses.

The Supreme Court in an opinion released today upheld the death sentences of Curtis L. Clinton, who was found guilty of the 2012 aggravated murder of Heather Jackson and her 3-year-old and 1-year-old children. Writing for the Court, Chief Justice Maureen O’Connor noted that during the penalty phase of the trial, Clinton expressed sorrow for the deaths, but maintained his innocence. The Court found the death penalty to be appropriate and proportionate to death sentences upheld for those who committed similar crimes.

Clinton Tried for Rapes and Murders
Clinton raised 23 propositions of law to challenge his convictions and sentences, including a claim that trying him jointly for the Jackson murders and the rape of a 17-year-old the week before the murders violated his right to a fair trial.

In early September 2012, a girl identified as E.S. visited a friend and both of them spent a few days at Clinton’s Sandusky apartment. While at the apartment Clinton raped E.S. and then choked her until she passed out. When she awoke, he raped her again. Shortly after the rapes, E.S. went to a hospital where a sexual assault nurse collected DNA evidence that was later determined to be consistent with Clinton’s.

The Jackson family was murdered less than a week later. Phone records indicated that the last calls to Heather Jackson’s cell phone were from a number assigned to Clinton and occurred shortly after 3 a.m. Jackson lived near Firelands Hospital, and video surveillance cameras from the hospital recorded the outside of Jackson’s home and the approaching street. Hospital video showed a white Cadillac arriving at Jackson’s home at 3:10 a.m. and leaving at 4:16 a.m., then returning a few minutes later and leaving briefly after.

The next day, friends of Jackson discovered her body.

A Sandusky Police detective who investigated the rape of E.S., knew Clinton drove a white Cadillac and notified other investigators to look for Clinton. During a police interview, Clinton stated he had known Jackson for about five months. When confronted with the cell phone information, he claimed he dropped off money to her, they had sex, and he left. He was arrested and placed in county jail.

Evidence Points to Rape of Mother and Child
Autopsies conducted by the Lucas County deputy coroner concluded Jackson and the children died of ligature strangulation. A forensic scientist from the Ohio Bureau of Criminal Investigation (BCI) detected seminal fluid on 3-year-old C.J. and detected a sperm cell in her underwear. BCI tests determined that evidence was consistent with Clinton’s DNA profile, as was other DNA found on all three of the victims’ bodies.

Clinton was charged with the aggravated murder of Jackson while committing a rape and/or aggravated burglary, the aggravated murder of C.J. while committing a rape, and the aggravated murder of W.J. while committing a rape and/or aggravated burglary. He was also charged with the aggravated murders of C.J. and W.J., children under the age of 13.

All the aggravated murder counts carried death penalty specification. Clinton was additionally charged with the rape of C.J. and the rape of E.S.

Clinton pleaded not guilty, but a jury found him guilty of all charges and specifications. The jury recommended he be sentenced to death. The trial court judge sentenced him to death on three counts and to 10 years in prison for raping E.S. He was sentenced to life in prison without parole for the rape of C.J. and 10 years for aggravated burglary. Death sentences are automatically appealed to the Supreme Court, which considers the convictions and sentences.

Court Rejects Challenges to Sentence
The Supreme Court rejected all of Clinton’s claims of error at the trial court level, including the allegation that joining the charge of raping E.S. with the murders of the Jacksons prevented him from having a fair trial. The Court concluded it was reasonable for prosecutors to join the cases and introduce evidence of E.S.’s rape to help identify Clinton as the perpetrator of the crimes against the Jackson family.

The opinion noted that evidence of E.S.’s rape could be used to prove the identity of the person who committed the Jacksons’ murder because they shared a modus operandi (which is a particular way or method of doing something). In order to admit evidence of other acts to prove identity, the evidence must be related to or share common features with the crime in question.

“E.S. and C.J. were raped, and all four victims were choked,” the Court wrote. “The rapes of E.S. and the murder of the Jacksons occurred less than a week apart in Sandusky and involved an assailant driving a white Cadillac.”

The opinion stated that while the crimes differed in some respects, admissibility of the evidence is not affected just because the crimes differ in some detail. The opinion also noted that the trial judge made it clear to the jurors how the evidence in the E.S. charge could be used in the Jacksons’ case.

Court Weighs Factors before Sentencing
Although the trial court sentenced Clinton to death, the Supreme Court conducts its own independent weighing of the aggravating and mitigating circumstances presented in the case to determine if the death sentence is appropriate.

The Court noted that Clinton instructed his attorneys not to present any mitigation evidence or make any statements on his behalf during the sentencing phase of his trial. His defense lawyer informed the trial court that a neuropsychologist’s competency evaluation of Clinton concluded that Clinton was able to understand the implications of waiving the presentation of mitigating evidence. The attorney told the court that Clinton hoped to receive the death penalty and believed it would be safer for him to be on death row rather than in the general prison population.

Clinton then made a lengthy unsworn statement where he denied committing the crimes and accused the prosecutor of misconduct.

The Supreme Court wrote that it had Clinton’s statement and information from the competency report to review mitigating evidence. The evaluation showed Clinton had a history of abuse as a child, and that he was in juvenile detention centers on two occasions. He was also imprisoned from 1999 to 2012 for involuntary manslaughter, and throughout his life he had a history of depression and made several attempts to commit suicide. He was diagnosed with three mental illnesses — major depressive disorder, posttraumatic-stress disorder, and borderline-personality disorder.

The Court concluded the weight of the mitigating evidence did not overcome the aggravated circumstances of the murder that included the strangulation of Jackson and her children and the rape of a 3-year-old.

Justices Terrence O’Donnell, Sharon L. Kennedy, Judith L. French, Patrick F. Fischer, and R. Patrick DeWine joined the majority opinion.

Justice O’Neill joined the Court in affirming Clinton’s convictions, but dissented from imposing a sentence of death based on his dissents in State v. Wogenstahl (2013) and State v. Neyland (2014). In Wogenstahl, he concluded that the death penalty violates the U.S. Constitution’s prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment. In Neyland, he argued that capital punishment was even more inhumane when imposed on the mentally ill.Justice O’Neill resigned on Jan. 26.

2014-0273. State v. Clinton, Slip Opinion No. 2017-Ohio-9423.

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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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