Death row inmate slips through legal system


By Andrew Welsh-Huggins - Associated Press



COLUMBUS, Ohio (AP) — David Martin was sentenced to die six years ago.

But since late 2018, after the state Supreme Court upheld his sentence, the 35-year-old Ohio death row inmate has fallen through the cracks of the legal system. He hasn’t had a lawyer for more than a year and he missed his chance to make a customary appeal to the federal courts, The Associated Press has learned.

Martin was sentenced to die in 2014 for fatally shooting 21-year-old Jeremy Cole during a robbery in northeastern Ohio two years earlier. Martin also shot Cole’s girlfriend in the head, severely wounding her.

When the state Supreme Court upholds a death sentence, it automatically sets an execution date, which in Martin’s case is May 26, 2021. Normally, attorneys representing inmates in their appeals ask the court to delay those dates while cases enter the federal system, a request the court automatically grants. Appeals often last years afterward.

In Martin’s case, however, no attorney took over his case, the request wasn’t made and his chance to appeal his death sentence was initially lost, said David Stebbins, a federal public defender in Columbus whose office is trying to represent him.

In fact, Martin only got on that office’s radar after he reached out to the AP in late January with questions about his upcoming 2021 execution, which prompted questions to Stebbins.

Shortly after that, federal public defenders in Columbus asked a judge last month to appoint them to represent Martin in hopes of saving his federal court appeals.

“It’s shocking to me that this fell through the cracks, that this could go a whole year and nobody could notice this guy didn’t have a lawyer,” Stebbins said. “I thought we had better safeguards in place.”

It’s unclear exactly how the system lost track of Martin. Attorney John Juhasz, who represented Martin in his appeal to the Supreme Court, said he sent a letter to the state public defender’s office in January 2019 letting them know his involvement had ended. The state public defender tracks death penalty cases even if it doesn’t represent all the inmates.

Tim Young, the state public defender, doesn’t dispute the letter was sent, but says his office has no record of the correspondence arriving. “It doesn’t exist in any form that we would have had it,” Young said.

Young’s office can’t represent Martin in the federal courts since state public defenders represented him at trial. But Young said he’ll do whatever is needed to help Martin get back on track because of the importance of the federal review process.

Complicating Martin’s situation, he’s housed at the state supermax in Youngstown, away from other death row inmates who typically share information about legal developments, Stebbins said.

Martin is housed at the supermax because he and two other prisoners took a guard hostage for five hours at Trumbull County Jail in April 2014, said prisons spokeswoman JoEllen Smith.

The Trumbull County Prosecutor’s office expressed little sympathy for Martin’s situation, noting that in addition to the hostage situation, he threatened the surviving victim at trial.

“David Martin has forfeited his right to live and we shouldn’t be wasting time and resources on a guy this evil,” said Chris Becker, first assistant prosecutor and lead prosecutor on Martin’s case.

The attorney general’s office, which typically challenges Ohio death row inmates’ claims in federal court, declined to comment.

Stebbins, of the federal public defender’s office, said Martin’s case should give pause to anyone who claims Ohio’s death penalty system works because all cases are adequately reviewed. Taking away a federal review means “far less assurance to the citizens of Ohio that the system is working properly.”

Regardless of what happens, Martin is likely years from execution. The death penalty is on hold in Ohio because the state can’t find a source of lethal drugs. Ohio’s last execution was carried out in July 2018.

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By Andrew Welsh-Huggins

Associated Press

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