Court News Ohio
Court News Ohio
Court News Ohio

Death Penalty Affirmed for Lawrence County Man Who Confessed to Murders

The Ohio Supreme Court today affirmed the conviction and death sentence of a Lawrence County man who confessed to killing his cousin, her 8-year-old son, and two other family members.

A divided Supreme Court affirmed the death penalties issued to Arron Lawson for the 2017 murders of Stacey Holston; her son, identified as D.H.; her mother, Tammie McGuire; and her mother’s husband, Donald McGuire. On the eve of his trial, Lawson wavered between confessing and standing trial before ultimately pleading guilty and allowing a three-judge panel to sentence him to death.

Writing for the Court majority, Justice Sharon L. Kennedy noted that a medical expert testified that Lawson had been diagnosed with several mental illnesses, including bipolar disorder, which presented “significant mitigating factors” when considering whether the death sentences were appropriate.

“But this is also a case in which the defendant slaughtered four people, including the callous slaying of an 8-year-old child,” she wrote. “With respect to each of the four aggravated murders before us, we find that the aggravating circumstances outweigh the mitigating factors beyond a reasonable doubt.”

Justices Patrick F. Fischer, R. Patrick DeWine, and Michael P. Donnelly joined Justice Kennedy’s opinion.

In a separate concurring opinion, Justice Donnelly stated he “reluctantly” concurred with imposing the death sentence. He noted that as the case was pending, a new state law took effect in April 2021, which makes a person with a serious mental illness – including bipolar disorder – ineligible for the death penalty if the illness played a significant role in the crime. He wrote R.C. 2929.025 allows Lawson to seek postconviction relief, giving him another chance to challenge his death sentence.

Chief Justice Maureen O’Connor joined Justice Donnelly’s opinion.

Justice Melody J. Stewart indicated without a written opinion that she concurred in part and dissented in part with the majority opinion and would reverse the death sentences.  

In a dissenting opinion, Justice Jennifer Brunner wrote the trial court should not have relied on assurances of counsel that Lawson was competent to make the decision to plead guilty to all the offenses for which he was charged. She criticized the use of an expert’s report during the mitigation phase as a substitute indicator for mental competency and argued that Ohio statute required a psychological evaluation before Lawson’s plea could be accepted.

Citing the need for establishing best practices in determining competency, especially in death penalty cases, Justice Brunner would have reversed and remanded the case to the trial court to order a competency examination along with a new hearing to determine further action based on the findings and recommendations of the evaluation.

Murder Planned after Relationship Ended
Holsten was Lawson’s first cousin and lived with her husband, Todd, and their sons D.H. and 2-year-old B.H. in the small community of Pedro. Lawson lived nearby and visited the Holstens daily. Lawson stated he and Holston had been having a sexual affair, which she broke off a week before the murders.

Lawson visited her the day before the murders while her husband was at work. During the visit, he entered a bedroom at the back of the house, opened a window, and inserted a book between the window and the sill to hold the window open. The next morning, after Todd Holsten left the house for work, Lawson entered through the rear window he had opened. He had a shotgun, knives, and a backpack with items including flashlights, toilet paper, and a tarp.

The school bus picked up. D.H. to take him to school. His mother sent along a note to the school to put D.H. on another bus that afternoon to take him to his grandparents’ house after school. After D.H. left, Lawson shot Holsten three times. He dragged her body into D.H.’s bedroom and had sex with her corpse, and then covered her body with a blanket and futon mattress.

Her husband, who worked more than an hour away in Maysville, Kentucky, was concerned when he did not receive a text from his wife as she usually sent to ensure he arrived at work safely. He tried repeatedly to call and text her, but she did not respond.

Call to School Made to Lure Son Home
After killing Holsten, Lawson used her phone to call the school and pretended to be her husband. He told the school secretary there was a change of plans and D.H. should return home instead of going to his grandparents. The school made the change. As Lawson waited for D.H. to return, he fed B.H., changed his diaper, and put him down for a nap.

When D.H. came home, he asked Lawson where his mother was and when his father was coming home. Lawson told D.H. that Lawson’s PlayStation 3 videogame console was in D.H.’s bedroom behind the dresser. As D.H. looked for the game, Lawson shot him twice and killed him. He left the child’s body where it fell and covered it with clothes, and he continued to wait in the Holsten home.

Husband’s Concern Intensifies
Around 6:30 p.m., Todd tried to contact his wife on his way home. After not reaching her, he decided to call her mother, Tammie McGuire, who lived nearby. McGuire agreed to check on her daughter and drove to the house. She was on the phone with Todd at the time she unsuccessfully attempted to enter the house, and Todd told her to break in.

As the two were on the phone together, Todd heard her scream, “Oh, my God!” Lawson said he hid behind a bedroom door and, when she opened the door, he stepped out and shot McGuire to death.

Todd, concerned by what he heard, called McGuire’s husband, Don. He went to check on his wife, and when he entered through the front door, Lawson shot and killed him.

Todd arrived shortly thereafter. When he entered the house, Lawson attacked him with a knife, stabbing him repeatedly. Todd wrestled the knife from Lawson and pinned him to the couch. When Todd asked about his wife and the children, Lawson said they were OK, and Todd forcefully removed Lawson from the house. Lawson drove away in the McGuires’ truck.

Todd discovered B.H. unharmed and then found the dead bodies. He called 911. Law enforcement tracked Lawson as he was driving the truck. He abandoned the truck and fled on foot into the woods, and spent two nights there before he emerged and was apprehended. He was taken to the Lawrence County Prosecutor’s Office in Ironton, where he confessed to the murders.

Death Penalty Imposed
Lawson was indicted on four counts of aggravated murder with death penalty specifications. The charge for killing D.H. alone carried six death specifications. He was also charged with other non-death penalty crimes related to the murder and escape.

After initially pleading not guilty, Lawson eventually pleaded guilty before a three-judge panel in February 2019. After conducting a mitigation hearing, the panel sentenced him to death on all four aggravated murder counts and imposed another 59 years and six months in prison for the other non-death penalty offenses.

Because the death penalty was imposed, his case was automatically appealed to the Ohio Supreme Court.

Judge Questioned Competency before Accepting Plea
In his appeal, Lawson objected to the court’s acceptance of his guilty plea without first conducting a competency hearing to determine if he could be tried for the murders. Lawson contended the trial court had a constitutional duty to inquire into his competence to stand trial before accepting his plea.

Lawson’s trial took place about a year after he was charged. Days before jury selection, Lawson’s lawyers told the trial judge that Lawson did not want a trial. Lawson told his attorneys he did not want to put himself and the families through a trial. The judge met in chambers with the defense lawyers and prosecutors, where one of Lawson’s lawyers said he explained to Lawson that if he pleaded guilty, the case would proceed before a three-judge panel, not a jury. The lawyer observed, “I suppose … if he wants to do that, there’s always a question of whether or not there needs to be an examination of his competence to waive jury in a capital case.”

A prosecutor questioned whether Bob Stinson, a forensic psychologist who conducted several interviews with Lawson, his family, and others, could render an opinion on Lawson’s competence. Lawson’s attorney stated that he could not commit Stinson to being able to do that as Stinson conducted an assessment for the mitigation portion of the trial, and that is a different type of assessment than determining competency.

The judge stated that he raised the issue of a competency evaluation “months ago,” but declined to order one because Lawson’s attorneys opposed it. Lawson’s attorney told the judge that they had no reason to believe Lawson was not competent. The judge continued that he was “second-guessing” himself and should have ordered the evaluation over the objection. Lawson’s attorney stated that the judge was “not incorrect” in not ordering the evaluation over the defense’s opposition. The prosecutor noted that the defense had not raised a question about Lawson’s competence to stand trial.

After Wavering, Trial Averted
The court took a recess to allow Lawson to discuss the matter with his family. After speaking with his mother, he decided he would proceed with a jury trial. The jury selection process resumed. The next day, acting against the advice of counsel, Lawson changed his mind and agreed to plead guilty before a panel of judges.

The trial judge questioned Lawson at length about whether he understood his constitutional rights to have a jury hear his case. Lawson affirmatively stated a number of times that he understood the consequences of his decision. The trial court inquired of Lawson whether he had consulted with his family about his decision. Lawson answered that he “had a second thought throughout the night,” and that he had to “make a better decision for my life and not somebody else’s.” The trial court accepted Lawson’s waiver.

Nine days later, the three-judge panel conducted a change-of-plea hearing where Lawson’s attorney told the court that they had discussed the change of plea with Lawson for about 90 minutes that day. The presiding judge asked whether Lawson’s attorneys ever had any concerns about Lawson having any “mental defect or deficiency” that would prevent him from knowingly, intelligently, and voluntarily waiving his rights. One of Lawson’s attorneys said he did not. The presiding judge then inquired whether an appropriate investigation into competency issues had been conducted. One of Lawson’s attorneys replied that after lengthy discussions with Stinson, they had elected not to raise the issue of incompetency.

Justice Kennedy wrote that a defendant is rebuttably presumed competent and the U.S. Supreme Court has held that a competency determination is necessary only when a court has a reason to doubt the defendant is competent. The opinion stated that a defendant is legally competent to stand trial when the defendant “has sufficient present ability to consult with his lawyer with a reasonable degree of rational understanding … and … a rational as well as factual understanding of the proceedings against him.” A court is required to hold a hearing when it has been presented with “sufficient indicia of incompetence.”

Lawson argued the record established “sufficient indicia of incompetence” to have required a hearing. He contended that his competency was called into question for deciding to plead guilty against the advice of his lawyers, displaying indecision by changing his mind about pleading guilty, and because at the time of his plea he was being treated with psychiatric medications.

The majority opinion noted that acting against the advice of counsel does not indicate incompetence. Refusing to heed counsel’s advice does not demonstrate an inability to understand the nature of the charges and proceedings or to assist in the defense. Rather, such a refusal shows the defendant’s ability to participate in his defense, the Court stated.

The Court ruled that Lawson’s indecisiveness about pleading guilty was also not an indication of incompetency. Lawson explained that his change of mind stemmed from the emotional toll of meeting with his mother, but that upon further reflection, the best decision for him was to plead guilty. Also, Lawson’s indecision was brief, and he did not waiver in the face of his counsel’s contrary advice, a rigorous plea colloquy, or over the nine days before the change-of-plea hearing with the three-judge panel, the Court stated. The opinion noted that these events did not show that Lawson lacked either the ability to consult with his lawyer with a reasonable degree of rational understanding or that he was unable to understand the proceedings.

The Court stated that “the fact that a defendant is taking antidepressant medication or prescribed psychotropic drugs does not negate his competence to stand trial.” The opinion noted that Lawson testified to being under prescribed psychotropic medications during the trial, but that he stated none of the medications prevented him from understanding what his attorneys or the court said to him. He appropriately answered the court’s questions and there is no evidence in the record that suggests the medications hampered Lawson’s ability to understand the proceedings and assist his attorneys. The Court concluded there was no indicia of incompetency that would have required the court to order a competency evaluation before proceeding.

The Court also concluded that the trial judge’s questioning of whether a competency evaluation should have been ordered was not an indication that an evaluation was required. The Court rejected Lawson’s argument that he should have received a competency evaluation, and it rejected his other legal arguments.

Supreme Court Independently Reviewed Sentence
The Supreme Court conducted its own review of the death sentence and noted that Lawson’s mental-health history was the strongest mitigating factor in the case. The opinion noted that at various times as a child and young adult, Lawson was diagnosed with bipolar disorder, depression, and posttraumatic stress disorder and he did not receive adequate treatment for those conditions.

Stinson explained that Lawson’s family had a history of mental illness and drug and alcohol abuse, and that Lawson suffered abuse as a child. But Stinson did not testify that the murders were attributable to Lawson’s mental disorders, the opinion stated.

The Court also noted that Lawson’s youth was a mitigating factor, since he was 23 years old when he committed the murders. While youth is a factor, the Court noted that by age 23, Lawson had some “time to distance himself from his childhood.”

While Lawson’s mental-health history was entitled to substantial weight and the remaining mitigating factors carried some weight, they did not overcome the aggravating circumstances, including the “great weight” involved in murdering a child younger than 13, the opinion stated. The Court determined the aggravating circumstances outweighed the mitigating factors and upheld the convictions and death sentences.

Dissent Questioned Review Process
In her dissent, Justice Brunner questioned why the majority would rely on the opinions of attorneys and judges to determine Lawson’s mental competency, especially since it was revealed to the court that he was taking prescription medications at the time of his plea. Justice Brunner noted the trial court did not ask nor was told before accepting Lawson’s plea that he was taking the medication because he had been diagnosed with mental illnesses.

“Our inquiry in this appeal, however, is not whether we believe that Lawson was competent; it is whether these factors taken together should be held to reasonably indicate to a trial court that further inquiry into the defendant’s competency is required, to ensure the fairness of the proceeding, especially in a capital case,” she wrote.

The dissent stated that rather than relying on the impressions of the trial court and the attorneys, the Court has a duty to expect a trial court to thoroughly evaluate a defendant by using trained medical professionals.

“Remanding this case for a competency hearing would be of benefit to the public in ensuring a high standard of compliance with due-process principles in cases in which a death sentence could be imposed,” the dissent stated.

2019-0487. State v. Lawson, Slip Opinion No. 2021-Ohio-3566.

Video camera icon View oral argument video of this case.

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.

Adobe PDF PDF files may be viewed, printed, and searched using the free Acrobat® Reader
Acrobat Reader is a trademark of Adobe Systems Incorporated.