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Court News Ohio

Death Penalty Affirmed for East Cleveland Killer Who Killed Three Women

Image of a male prison inmate

Death-row inmate Michael Madison

Image of a male prison inmate

Death-row inmate Michael Madison

The Ohio Supreme Court today affirmed the conviction and death sentences of an East Cleveland man who killed three women over the course of nine months and disposed of their bodies in garbage bags near his apartment.

The Supreme Court unanimously ruled the death penalty was appropriate for Michael Madison, who confessed to choking a woman to death in October 2012, then leaving her in his apartment while he went out drinking. Madison claimed he did not recall killing the two others, but did say he recalled waking up next to the dead body of one of the women, which he later put in a garage behind his home.

Madison’s defense attorney did not claim Madison was innocent, but raised 20 issues on appeal, claiming improper trial procedures denied him the right to receive a life sentence in prison .

Writing for the Court, Justice R. Patrick DeWine concluded that Madison’s claims of missteps and bias were not supported by the evidence. However, the Court reversed two kidnapping convictions that were part of his 14-count indictment and two death penalty specifications based on those kidnappings.

The Court concluded the death sentences were justified for the three murders Madison committed in a course of conduct over nine months and for kidnapping and raping one of the victims. The Court ruled the “evidence overwhelmingly supports the course of conduct specifications” attached to each of three aggravated murder convictions.

Women’s Bodies Found Bound in Trash Bags
Madison lived in a second-floor apartment above a cable-television company office. In July 2013, cable company employees noticed a foul odor coming from a garage behind the building and called the police. The garage was used by Madison and several others. Police discovered a large garbage bag jammed between Madison’s car and the wall.

Inside the bag was the decomposing body of Shirellda Terry, 18, who had met Madison about a week before she was last seen alive. Searching further, the police found another trash bag in a brush pile behind the garage. In it they discovered the body of Shetisha Sheeley, 28, who had last communicated with her family in September 2012.

A third garbage bag was found in the basement of an abandoned house about 15 yards from the garage, which contained the body of Angela Deskins, 38, who lost contact with her family in May 2013. The body of each victim had been bent at the waist, and the head had been bound to the legs.

Autopsies revealed Terry and Deskins had been strangled.  Sheeley had a deep bruise on her face, inflicted while she was alive, but her body was too badly decomposed for the medical examiner to determine a precise cause of death.

Suspect Confesses to Murder
In mid-July 2013, detectives interrogated Madison over the course of several days, and he signed a four-page confession. He said he choked a woman, later identified as Sheeley, and after returning to his apartment from drinking, “folded her up,” put her in multiple trash bags, and moved her to the garage. He left her body there for months before putting it outside the garage.

Madison admitted to inviting Terry to his apartment. His text messages to Terry show that he lied to her by telling her he was 25 years old with no kids when he was actually 35 with two kids. He said he did not remember killing her, but did put her dead body in the garage. He said he did not recall anything about Deskins’s death.  However, Deskins’s DNA was found in his apartment.  

A grand jury indicted Madison on 14 counts, including two counts of aggravated murder for each victim. Each aggravated murder included a death penalty specification alleging the murder was part of a course of conduct involving the purposeful killing or attempt to kill two or more victims. The charges also included a death penalty specification for felony murder of each victim based on kidnapping, and a death penalty specification for felony murder based on raping Terry.

A jury found him guilty of all but one charge and recommended the death sentence. The trial judge imposed death sentences for each murder and prison sentences for the noncapital offenses.

Jury Selection Questioned
In his automatic appeal of his death sentence to the Supreme Court, Madison raised 20 issues, known as propositions of law. Many focused on jury selection and his belief that the trial court violated standards set by the U.S Supreme Court in its 1992 Morgan v. Illinois decision.

He argued that at least nine potential jurors were ineligible to serve because they were “automatic-death-penalty jurors” who would vote to impose the death penalty even if mitigating factors justified a life sentence.

Madison maintained he was forced to use six of his peremptory challenges to keep those prospective jurors off the jury, but three others remained. He argued that under Morgan if even one “automatic death penalty” juror remained on the jury, the trial was unfair and he was entitled to another trial.

The Court’s opinion recounted the process for the selection and dismissal of each of the nine jurors and found no error in their selection or exclusion. The opinion stated that Madison argued he has a right to ask prospective jurors how they would vote given the “specific facts of an individual case.”

“The purpose of the voir dire is not to establish how a juror will vote on the case to be tried; it is to discover whether any juror has a bias that would prevent him or her from individually weighing the facts of the case,” the Court stated.

The Court noted “substantial evidence” was provided to demonstrate that each of the three jurors Madison claimed were biased all said they could impose a life sentence if the evidence warranted it.

Removal of Death Penalty Opponents Questioned
Madison also complained that the trial court was wrong when it allowed three prospective jurors to be dismissed because they expressed that they did not believe in the death penalty. Citing the Ohio Supreme Court’s 1997 State v. Keith decision, he maintained a prospective juror cannot be excluded simply for expressing reservations about the death penalty.

A prospective juror can be excluded if a juror’s beliefs about capital punishment “would prevent or substantially impair the performance of his duties as a juror in accordance with his instructions and oath,” the opinion stated. Because each of the three expressed opposition to the death penalty even if the evidence warranted it, the trial court properly dismissed the prospective jurors, the Court concluded.

Court Determined Sentence Warranted
Among the aggravating circumstances found by the jury was that Madison had committed the murders during the course of kidnapping each of the three victims.  The Court found there was insufficient evidence to support a conclusion that Madison had kidnapped Sheeley and Deskins.  The Court found that prosecutors only demonstrated that Sheeley voluntarily went to Madison’s apartment, but they had no evidence she was held there against her will. The prosecution was also unable to demonstrate whether Madison had kidnapped Deskins before killing her.

After removing these two kidnapping aggravating circumstances from its consideration, the Court conducted an independent review to determine if the evidence supported a death sentence. The Court then determined that the death penalty was warranted because the aggravating circumstances outweighed the mitigating factors beyond a reasonable doubt and the death sentence was proportionate to sentences imposed in similar cases.

2016-1006. State v. Madison, Slip Opinion No. 2020-Ohio-3735.

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