The Ohio Supreme Court will hear arguments in the death penalty appeal of Anthony Sowell on April 5. Sowell, who was convicted of the murders of 11 women between 2007 and 2009 in Cleveland, has raised multiple issues with his trial, convictions, and death sentence. Police discovered the women’s bodies in and around his home in 2009.
(Sowell lived in his stepmother’s house on Imperial Avenue in Cleveland. On Sept. 23, 2009, Latundra Billups went to the hospital to report she had been raped. Billups gave a statement to police that Sowell had attacked and raped her in his house the day before. Police obtained an arrest warrant and a search warrant, and sent a SWAT team to the home on Oct. 29. Sowell wasn’t there when they arrived, and police searched the premises.)
During the next five days, the bodies of five women and the skull of another woman were found throughout the house. The bodies of five more women were uncovered in the backyard. Most of the women had been strangled.
Cleveland police located and arrested Sowell on Oct. 31. They interviewed him for 11 to 12 hours total during two days.
A jury convicted Sowell in 2011 on 81 counts, including the aggravated murders of the 11 women and the attempted murders of three women, along with felonious assault, rape, and kidnapping. The trial court imposed the death penalty.
Sowell Lays Out Fair Trial Concerns, Contests Legal Strategy
In Sowell v State, Sowell argues the trial court should have moved the case to another location given the extensive media coverage of the murders. The possibility of juror bias was high in this case because of negative pretrial publicity, making a fair trial in the county improbable, he contends.
He also challenges the trial court ruling that prevented his attorneys from asking potential jurors their thoughts about specific mitigating factors during jury selection, and he thinks his lawyers were obligated to have invested more effort in the mitigation, rather than the guilt, phase of the trial.
Were Public Trial Rights Violated?
In September 2014, the Supreme Court also ordered Sowell and the state to submit written arguments about whether his constitutional right to a public trial was deprived when the trial court closed the courtroom for a pretrial suppression hearing and again during the questioning of potential jurors.
The suppression hearing was held to decide whether the details of Sowell’s 11-plus hour interrogation by police could be heard during the trial. In Sowell’s view, the trial court didn’t consider alternatives to a closed hearing and didn’t meet the legal standard for banning public and media access to the proceeding. The state, however, contends the court’s decision protected Sowell’s right to a fair trial. Also, the state maintains, the court limited the closure to the review of only the interrogation and had no other options available to ensure a fair hearing.
On the voir dire issue, the parties explain that potential jurors were questioned individually. The court closed the courtroom during this process. The state argues Sowell asked for a “sequestered,” or closed, session for jury selection, as evidenced by his requests to possibly question the jurors one by one in the judge’s chambers. Sowell maintains he never sought to exclude the public and media from the courtroom. The closed courtroom denied his right to a public trial, and his conviction and sentence should be overturned, he concludes.
The American Civil Liberties Union of Ohio filed an amicus brief on Oct. 3, 2014. The ACLU of Ohio "...requests that this Honorable Court reverse the judgment and death sentence imposed in this case and grant Defendant-Appellant Anthony Sowell a new trial or sentencing hearing."
In its one-day session on Tuesday, April 5, the Court will consider Sowell and three other appeals, also from Cuyahoga County.