COLUMBUS, Ohio - A condemned Cleveland man who stabbed a neighbor 17 times should have his death sentence commuted to life in prison, a prosecutor said Wednesday, reversing his office's long-standing position on the case.
Cuyahoga County prosecutor Tim McGinty said it's unlikely he would pursue a death sentence today against death row inmate Billy Slagle, saying the law has changed to provide new sentencing options for such crimes.
McGinty made the rare request in a letter to the Ohio Parole Board, which hears Slagle's latest request for clemency on Monday. He said jurors chose the only option they had at the time to ensure Slagle would never be freed for the 1986 killing of Mari Anne Pope.
In 1996, Ohio law changed to allow jurors to choose between death and life without parole.
McGinty cited Slagle's age -- at 18, he was the bare minimum for a death sentence in Ohio -- and a long history of drug and alcohol abuse. Those factors today would make a death sentence difficult to justify, McGinty said.
"While in no way do these factors excuse or mitigate the crime and the need for appropriate punishment in this case, they would likely have led a jury to recommend a sentence of life without the possibility of parole had that been an option," McGinty wrote to the Parole Board, according to a statement from his office obtained by The Associated Press.
Slagle's execution is scheduled for Aug. 7.
It was unclear Wednesday if a sitting Ohio prosecutor had ever asked that a death row inmate under his office have the sentence commuted.
Last year, a former Mahoning County prosecutor pleaded for clemency for a man he put on death row, saying he had come to believe inmate John Eley was not as responsible as a co-defendant who was acquitted in a fatal 1986 robbery. The parole board recommended against clemency, but Gov. John Kasich commuted Eley's sentence.
In a 1997 Virginia case, then-Gov. George Allen commuted the death sentence of William Saunders, saying he was swayed by a prosecutor and judge who said Saunders is not the same violent man sentenced to death seven years earlier.
McGinty's decision was not entirely a surprise. While running for prosecutor last year, he participated in a forum in which, in a switch on tough-on-crime grandstanding, he and other candidates promised to reduce the number of capital indictments in the county. Critics, including defense attorneys and even some prosecutors, have long argued Cuyahoga County sought too many death sentences.
"I will greatly reduce the charges in the death penalty cases as prosecutor and focus the limited resources we have on the most deserving cases," McGinty said at the time.
One of those cases might be that of Ariel Castro, a Cleveland man accused of imprisoning three women for a decade while beating and raping them. McGinty has said he may seek a death sentence based on allegations that Castro caused one woman to miscarry by beating and starving her.
Castro has pleaded not guilty and is scheduled for trial in August.
Slagle, 44, was sentenced to death for killing Pope in Cleveland after breaking into her house to commit burglary. Two children she was watching for neighbors were home at the time.
Two years ago, the parole board rejected Slagle's first request for mercy, ruling unanimously that the horrific nature of Slagle's crime outweighed the effects of his chaotic childhood and young age at the time.
"Ms. Pope was a totally innocent victim," the board said in its ruling. "She was not engaged in any type of risk behavior that would have made her susceptible to crime."
Before ruling on mercy, Kasich delayed Slagle's execution by two years while a judge weighed a challenge to Ohio's death penalty procedures.
Slagle's public defender Joe Wilhelm argued in 2011 that clemency was justified because of Slagle's age and because he was a chronic alcoholic with a troubled upbringing. Wilhelm also argued that Slagle, an American Indian of Chippewa heritage, suffered from a genetic predisposition to alcoholism that has been linked to Native Americans.
"It's a very gracious move but a very justified move by the prosecutor," Wilhelm said Wednesday, adding that he hopes it gives Kasich reason to commute the sentence.
The state argued that the jury and several appeals courts had heard and rejected those arguments.
"Other than repackaging and rehashing the same failed effort to blame the prosecutor, Slagle offers no reason why this Board should reach a different conclusion," then Cuyahoga County prosecutor Bill Mason said.
Andrew Welsh-Huggins can be reached on Twitter at https://twitter.com/awhcolumbus