YOUNGSTOWN — Attorneys for one of the men sentenced to death for killing two girls in an execution-style murder inside an Eureka Street apartment seven years ago is saying one juror with previous knowledge of him tainted the entire jury.
Attorneys for Jeronique Cunningham have been granted a request to take depositions of two jurors, Staci Freeman and Roberta Wobler, over allegations of bias by the jury foreperson, Nichole Mikesell, an investigator at Allen County Children Services. Freeman said she had trouble with the ballistics evidence from the trial but Mikesell persuaded her into voting guilty.
“I expressed my opinion and Nichole Mikesell responded that you don’t understand. I know the families of the people that were shot in the kitchen. The families know me and I am going to have to go back and see them,” Freeman said in her affidavit filed earlier this year.
Cunningham also is arguing Mikesell didn’t disclose her previous knowledge of Cunningham through his extensive involvement with Children Services and his trial lawyers didn’t properly question her about it.
Cunningham and his half brother, Cleveland Jackson, were convicted in 2002 of multiple charges, including causing the deaths of 3-year-old Jala Grant and 17-year-old Leneshia Williams on Jan. 3, 2002. The men were trying to rob the group. Six others were shot but survived.
Earlier this month, Judge Peter Economus of the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Ohio assigned a magistrate judge to oversee interviews with Freeman and Wobler. Wobler said one woman on the jury, who she didn’t name, was adamant Cunningham was not guilty but Mikesell told her she didn’t have to work in the community like she did.
Allen County Prosecutor Juergen Waldick, who tried the cases against Cunningham and Jackson, said this is just an attempt by the defense to try to keep their client from getting the death penalty.
“This is a cold-blooded, execution-style killing and both people involved in this deserve the death penalty not withstanding the other side’s moral opposition to the death penalty. That’s what this is, they’re opposed to the death penalty,” Waldick said.
Ohio Northern University Law Professor Victor Streib, an expert on death penalty cases, said jurors occasionally come forward years later to express doubt in their decisions but that doesn’t mean the case will be overturned. Cunningham’s legal team has the burden to prove the latest developments likely would have changed the outcome of the case.
“That is if this person had not been on the jury would this had changed the outcome,” Streib said. “The argument in a horrible case like this is almost any jury would have come to the same conclusion.”
Waldick said there was overwhelming evidence from the victims who were shot testifying both men had guns and both men fired at the eight victims.
Streib also said it’s not uncommon to have stronger personalities on a jury trying to persuade other jurors.