LIMA — A man sentenced to Ohio’s death row for his role in the execution-style killings of two girls on Eureka Street in 2002 was back in an Allen County courtroom Wednesday arguing for a new trial based on the allegation of juror misconduct.
Jeronique Cunningham, now 42, argued the forewoman of his jury was biased and had prior knowledge of him and/or the victims’ families, which she used to influence the decision of other jurors. He is asking the court to grant him a new trial.
A federal appellate court sent the case back to further look into the matter. Attorneys made short arguments Wednesday while relying on lengthy written arguments and other records to each make their case. Judge David Cheney will issue a decision at a later date.
Cunningham and his half brother, Cleveland Jackson, were convicted in the killings of Jala Grant, 3, and Leneshia Williams, 17, and the wounding of six others inside an apartment on Eureka Street. Six of the eight victims were shot in the head. Both men were sentenced to death. The motive for the crime was to achieve drugs and money.
Assistant Allen County Prosecutor Jana Emerick said Cunningham’s motion was filed more than a decade late, there was no juror misconduct and even if there were, the evidence at trial, with five witnesses pointing to Cunningham as one of the men who carried out the crimes, was overwhelming.
Cunningham’s attorney, Michael Benza, said he has not been given the chance to further question the forewoman. He said she was an investigator at Allen County Children Services and had knowledge of Cunningham or the victims that influenced her and prevented Cunningham from getting a fair trial.
Emerick said that is not true. She said the forewoman was questioned extensively during jury selection about her employment and whether she had any knowledge of the case or the parties involved that would prevent her from being a fair and impartial juror. She said did not, Emerick said.
Even years after the verdict and Cunningham was sentenced to death, the juror said she was not influenced ahead of time and anything she learned through her job came after the trial when she reviewed agency records, Emerick said in her written response.
But Benza said in his written response another juror stated in a deposition the forewoman said she has to work in this community and see the families of the victims after the trial, and used that to influence the opinion of at least one other juror.
Emerick said the comment was taken out of context, was at the end of deliberations and did not affect the decision-making process. On top of that, Emerick said the evidence against Cunningham was overwhelming.
The 6th Circuit Court of Appeals, which sent the case back, is the last court that has to hear the appeal. After that, the U.S. Supreme Court can turn down the case without a hearing. A clemency request with the governor would be the last step before execution.
Jackson has exhausted his appeals. His final chance at avoiding execution is through clemency, for which a hearing has not been scheduled. Jackson has a July 20, execution date set.
Reach Greg Sowinski at 567-242-0464 or on Twitter @Lima_Sowinski.