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Court News Ohio

Death Penalty Affirmed for Man Who Stabbed Housemates to Death

Image of death row inmate Thomas E. Knuff.

Death row inmate Thomas E. Knuff.

Image of death row inmate Thomas E. Knuff.

Death row inmate Thomas E. Knuff.

The Supreme Court of Ohio affirmed the death penalty for a man who stabbed his two Parma Heights housemates to death and concealed their bodies for weeks in trash bags hidden in the home.

The Supreme Court rejected the 24 legal arguments raised by Thomas E. Knuff Jr., including his claim that he only killed one of the two victims, and that killing was in self-defense. Knuff was convicted of the May 2017 murders of John Mann and Regina Capobianco.

Writing for the Court majority, Justice Joseph T. Deters stated that Knuff claimed he was innocent and the only remorse he expressed was that the victims were unable to receive proper burials.

“To the contrary, the evidence (other than Knuff’s self-serving account) strongly supports the jury's rejection of Knuff’s self-defense claim and its finding that he killed both Mann and Capobianco,” Justice Deters wrote.

Knuff received the death sentence based on two counts of aggravated murder. Each count carried a death penalty specification for acting in the course of conduct “for the purposeful killing of two or more persons.” He also received death specifications for committing the felonies of aggravated burglary and kidnapping.

Chief Justice Sharon L. Kennedy and Justices Patrick F. Fischer, R. Patrick DeWine, and Melody Stewart joined Justice Deters in the majority opinion.

In a concurring opinion, Justice Michael P. Donnelly agreed that the death penalty should be imposed based on Knuff’s murder convictions. However, he disagreed with the use of the felony murder specifications, stating that the Supreme Court is relying on past decisions that stretch the limits of the definitions of burglary and kidnapping. Those definitions allow “a burglary charge with almost any murder within four walls and kidnapping with almost any death that was not instantaneous,” he stated.

Justice Jennifer Brunner joined Justice Donnelly’s concurrence.

Released Inmate Briefly Resides With Friend and Former Girlfriend
Knuff, who was serving a 15-and-a-half-year prison term on a previous conviction, was scheduled to be released from prison in early April 2017. While in prison, he developed a romantic relationship with Alicia Stoner, an employee at the prison. Their relationship ended before his release, but she offered to pick him up when he got out. He declined, saying he arranged a ride with “John and his old lady.”

“John” was John Mann, a friend of Knuff’s who was living in Parma Heights. John’s “old lady” was Regina Capobianco. Knuff and Capobianco had a prior relationship.

Upon his release, Knuff moved into a Strongsville hotel room paid for by Stoner. On May 10, 2017, Marc Fisher, Knuff’s parole officer, learned Knuff was living at the hotel. But when Fisher discovered that the hotel manager had not seen Knuff for five days, Fisher confronted Knuff.

Knuff told Fisher he was living with Mann. That same day, Fisher spoke with Mann. Mann said he lived alone and had agreed to any unannounced home visits or warrantless searches. Fisher permitted Knuff to stay with Mann pending a home visit. He also sanctioned Knuff for lying about living at the hotel.

Mann was not living alone. Capobianco had been living with Mann for about a year. When Knuff moved in, Capobianco was engaging in prostitution, sometimes at Mann’s home. Because living with someone who is committing crimes could result in additional parole violation sanctions for Knuff, a conflict arose between Knuff and Capobianco.

On May 11, the day after being granted permission to live with Mann, Knuff asked Stoner for $80 to get Capobianco out of the house. Stoner sent the money around 8 p.m. and then tried to call and text Knuff repeatedly that night and through the following afternoon of May 12. But he did not respond. Knuff then called Stoner and told her she needed to get him, but he did not explain why. She picked him up at a bar.

Police Discover Hidden Bodies
Stoner saw that one of Knuff’s fingers was bandaged. He told her that drug dealers had visited Mann’s house because Capobianco owed them money. He said the dealers beat up Mann and took Mann’s car. Then a conversation between Mann and Capobianco escalated into a fight, and she stabbed Mann, Knuff said. Knuff claimed he injured his finger when Capobianco tried to stab him. He said he remembered stabbing Capobianco and then “blacking out.” Stoner urged Knuff to call an ambulance for his friends, but he responded, “No, they’re dead.”

Knuff told others different stories about how his hand got injured. On May 13, Knuff told his son, Tommy, there were two dead people at the house who had supposedly attacked Mann. When asked if he was responsible for those deaths, Knuff said he was.

Two days later, Tommy drove his father to a store to buy super-strength glue for his finger and large plastic garbage bags. A few days later, Knuff took his son’s vehicle without permission and broke into two Parma Heights businesses, where he took a cash register from one and cash from another.

The next day, an Ohio State Highway Patrol officer responded to a call and found Knuff walking back and forth along a highway, saying, “Just kill me, I don’t want to live anymore.”

Knuff told the officer he crashed his son’s vehicle and abandoned it. When the officer saw Knuff’s severely injured finger, he called for emergency medical transport. Because Knuff threatened self-harm, he was sent to a hospital for a psychiatric evaluation and to care for his injured finger. At the hospital, he told a nurse yet another version of how he injured his hand.  This time, he said that a prostitute attacked and killed his roommate with a knife, and he cut his finger when the prostitute attacked him. He said he killed the prostitute in self-defense.

Meanwhile, Capobianco’s sister became worried after not hearing from her. She called Parma Heights police and told them that Capobianco had communicated with Knuff, a recently released prisoner. Capobianco was described as 4 feet, 11 inches tall and weighing about 125 pounds. Knuff and Mann were described as 5 feet, 11 inches tall.

Police searched Mann’s home after hearing complaints from the neighbors. Officers detected a strong odor and a large presence of flies but found no one inside the home.

Knuff was eventually arrested in late May 2017, and in mid-June, police returned to the home. One officer who read Capobianco’s height realized they might have missed finding her in the heavily cluttered home. A search of the bedrooms uncovered several garbage bags piled around a bed. Police found the decomposing bodies of Mann and Capobianco. Autopsies revealed that Mann had been stabbed 15 times and Capobianco stabbed six times.

Also, around that time, Stoner gave Parma Heights police a letter from Knuff to a friend, Robert Dlugo. Knuff offered to pay Dlugo to burn down Mann’s house. In the letter, he told Dlugo he had trash bags with clothes and paper in the back bedroom and that when those were discovered, his life would be over.

During several interviews with police, Knuff consistently claimed Capobianco stabbed Mann, and Knuff killed her in self-defense. Knuff said he was trying to get Capobianco to move out because he feared he would be returned to prison for violating his parole. Knuff also told the officers he cleaned up the crime scene out of fear that he might go to prison if found living in a home where two people were murdered.

Jury Recommended Death Sentence
Knuff was indicted on 21 counts, including four aggravated murder charges. He was also charged with aggravated robbery, aggravated burglary, kidnapping, and several other crimes. The jury found him guilty of all charges except the aggravated robbery of Mann and the four felony murder specifications based on aggravated robbery.

The jury recommended death sentences for both murders.  In keeping with this recommendation, the trial judge sentenced Knuff to death on each count. The trial judge also sentenced Knuff to 37 years in prison for all the other crimes. Because the death penalty was imposed on Knuff, he was permitted to appeal directly to the Supreme Court, which considered Knuff’s 24 legal arguments against his convictions and sentences.

Defendant Challenges Evidence
Among his objections, Knuff claims the Cuyahoga County Prosecutor’s Office did not produce sufficient evidence to convict him of the murders and that the weight of the evidence did not support his convictions.

Justice Deters explained that a challenge to the sufficiency of the evidence fails if “after viewing the evidence in the light most favorable to the prosecution, any rational trier of fact could have found the essential elements of the crime proven beyond a reasonable doubt.”

Knuff argued the prosecutor failed to prove the underlying offenses of aggravated burglary and kidnapping that were used to impose a felony murder death specification. Under R.C. 2911.11(A)(1), burglary includes trespassing into an occupied structure with the intent to commit a crime. Knuff argued that since he had permission to live in Mann’s home, he could not have committed burglary.

The majority opinion stated while one might initially have the owner’s consent to be on the premises, that person can become a trespasser when consent is withdrawn. Citing prior Court decisions, the opinion stated a jury can “infer from the facts that a victim terminated the accused’s privilege to remain after commencement of an assault.”  The Court found the evidence was sufficient to convict Knuff of aggravated burglary.

Regarding kidnapping, Knuff argued that prosecutors failed to prove he restrained Mann and Capobianco. The Court noted that Knuff admitted he held Capobianco down while stabbing her. As to Mann, the prosecutor maintained that to “stab somebody 15 times, you have to restrain their liberty.”

A challenge to the weight of the evidence requires the reviewing court to find that “the jury clearly lost its way and created such a manifest miscarriage of justice that the conviction must be reversed, and a new trial ordered.”

Rejecting Mann’s manifest weight challenge, the Court pointed to the autopsies as substantial support for the jury’s rejection of Knuff’s story that he killed Capobianco in self-defense after she killed Mann. The autopsies establish that Mann had downward stab wounds in his neck and score marks on the top of his skull along with other head wounds. The injuries support a claim that Mann and his killer were similar in stature. Capobianco was a foot shorter than Mann, but Knuff and Mann were relatively the same height. The jury could reasonably infer from this that Knuff—not Capobianco—stabbed Mann, the opinion stated.  The autopsy also shows that Capobianco had two stab wounds to her back, which, the Court stated, tends to disprove Knuff’s claim that he acted in self-defense.

In addition to the autopsy evidence, the opinion noted that Knuff’s actions after the killing strongly suggested he was conscious of his guilt. He cut the bloodstained carpet into numerous pieces and put them in a garbage bag. Bloodstained mops were found in the kitchen. He admitted he tried to clean bloodstains off the wall, and he dragged the bodies into the bedroom and covered them.  For the stated purpose of cutting up the bodies, he bought hacksaws. He also wrote to Dlugo, urging him to burn down the house.

In view of this evidence, “[t]his is not the rare case in which the jury lost its way and returned a verdict against the manifest weight of the evidence,” the Court stated.

After an independent review of the aggravating circumstances and the mitigating factors, the Court affirmed the death sentences and all the convictions.

Concurrence Questioned Sentence Based on Burglary, Kidnapping
In his concurrence, Justice Donnelly wrote that the state could pursue a death penalty specification for felony murder based on burglary or kidnapping when appropriate, but the “timing and circumstances” in Knuff’s case did not support it. Justice Donnelly noted that for one to commit burglary where the person resides, “then we have stretched the concept of burglary to its outermost limit, or maybe beyond.”

The concurrence stated it was inappropriate to use burglary as a basis for the death penalty for Knuff. The state only “technically satisfied” the legal definition of kidnapping, which prohibits moving a person or restraining a person’s liberty. Knuff did not restrain the victims apart from fatally attacking them, the concurrence concluded.

The concurrence otherwise agreed with the majority that the death penalty was appropriate for Knuff’s murder of Mann and Capobianco.

2019-1323. State v. Knuff, Slip Opinion No. 2024-Ohio-902.

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