Ohio parole board makes rare mercy ruling for condemned inmate who strangled girlfriend

By Andrew Welsh-huggins, AP
Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Ohio board casts rare vote for mercy for inmate

COLUMBUS, Ohio — In a rare gesture, the Ohio Parole Board recommended clemency Tuesday for a condemned inmate sentenced to die next month for strangling his live-in girlfriend.

The board ruled 4-3 in favor of a sentence of life without the possibility of parole for Richard Nields, who is scheduled to die June 10. Nields, 59, killed Patricia Newsome during a 1997 argument in suburban Cincinnati.

In its decision, the board questioned the validity of medical evidence used at Nields’ trial that helped support a death sentence. The ruling is only a recommendation for Gov. Ted Strickland, who has the final say.

The state has executed 14 men since Strickland, a Democrat, took office in 2007. Of those cases, the parole board twice recommended mercy. Strickland followed the board’s recommendation in one case and overruled its finding in the other, allowing Jason Getsy to be executed.

Dr. Paul Shrode, then training in a medical fellowship at the Hamilton County coroner’s office, testified at Nields’ 1997 trial that bruising on the victim proved Nields beat his girlfriend, then returned 15 minutes later to strangle her.

But the deputy coroner who supervised Shrode at the time told the parole board that Shrode’s conclusions were not supported by science.

Dr. Robert Pfalzgraf, then a deputy coroner, said there was no scientific evidence to support how old the bruises on Newsome’s body were.

Nields’ attorneys argued that Shrode, a recent medical school graduate who had not yet completed his coroner’s fellowship, was not as experienced as Pfalzgraf but was chosen by prosecutors over Pfalzgraf to testify at trial.

A message seeking comment was left for Shrode, now the medical examiner in El Paso County, Texas.

The board cited concerns by the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals that Nields’ death sentence barely fit the definition of capital punishment under Ohio law.

Juries in Ohio must find offenders guilty of a serious secondary offense — such as rape, arson or aggravated robbery — in addition to aggravated murder to recommend a death sentence.

Nields was convicted of aggravated robbery for taking Newsome’s car and money from her purse. But the appeals court questioned whether those acts supported the robbery charge.

The board also cited a judge’s dissent in a 2001 decision by the Ohio Supreme Court that upheld Nields’ death sentence.

Justice Paul Pfeifer, who helped write Ohio’s death penalty law as a state legislator in 1981, wrote that Nields’ crime was not what lawmakers considered as a case eligible for the death penalty when creating the law.

“This case is not about robbery,” Pfeifer wrote. “It is about alcoholism, rage and rejection and about Nields’ inability to cope with any of them.”

Members of the parole board “give significant weight to Justice Pfeifer’s opinion in that he was a member of the Ohio General Assembly in 1981, and was one of the leading forces who helped write and enact Ohio’s current death penalty statute,” the ruling said.

Three members voted against clemency, pointing out that Nields had threatened his girlfriend in the past. They said the fact that he took Newsome’s car, money and travelers’ checks constituted aggravated robbery.

They also said Nields tried to mislead police as they investigated Newsome’s death.

“Given all of these facts, we do not believe that the outcome of the case would have been any different had the court and jury heard more reliable medical testimony,” the dissenting members said.

Strickland examines each clemency request thoroughly and on a case-by-case basis, spokeswoman Amanda Wurst said Tuesday.

Pfeifer declined to comment on the board’s decision, saying his dissent spoke for itself. Last week, the Republican justice said the cases of death row inmates in Ohio should be reviewed to see if all deserved capital punishment.

Hamilton County Prosecutor Joe Deters urged Strickland on Tuesday to reject the board’s ruling and allow Nields to be executed.

“The implication of the Parole Board’s opinion is that a deliberate murder during an aggravated robbery does not merit the death penalty,” Deters said in a statement. “For this board, after thirteen years, to second guess jurors and numerous judges is both frustrating and disturbing.”

(This version CORRECTS word in Pfeifer quote to “inability.”)

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