ELYRIA — As potential jurors waited on the first floor of the Lorain County Justice Center, accused killer Vincent Jackson Jr.’s lawyers were on the building’s seventh floor trying to convince county Common Pleas Judge James Miraldi to accept a guilty plea they hoped would spare their client a death sentence.
Defense attorneys Dan Wightman and J. Anthony Rich had asked Miraldi to allow Jackson to plead guilty to aggravated murder and then to let a jury determine whether he should be executed for the June 2008 shooting death of Gas USA clerk Qiana Walton during a robbery.
Assistant County Prosecutor Tony Cillo argued that wasn’t allowed under the law. He said if Jackson wanted to plead guilty, it would have to be done before a panel of three judges, who would then decide whether Jackson deserved death or a life prison sentence.
“Once you waive a jury, you can’t go back to a jury trial,” Cillo argued. “Once you start, there’s only one way to finish.”
Rich and Wightman also argued that Jackson could plead guilty to aggravated murder and other charges, and Miraldi could dismiss the capital specification “in the interests of justice.”
“This gives us an opportunity to allow him to plead guilty and led the court decide,” Wightman said.
Rich suggested that if Miraldi didn’t dismiss the death specification after a hearing, Jackson should be allowed to withdraw his plea and proceed to trial by jury.
But Cillo argued that wouldn’t be fair to the family of Walton, whom prosecutors contend was shot in the head with an AK-47 despite cooperating with Jackson during a robbery that was captured on security cameras.
Cillo said Jackson effectively wanted the death penalty removed from the case and if he didn’t get his way, he wanted to go to trial.
“He’s got no risk and he’s got no remorse,” Cillo said.
Miraldi pointed out that in other, less-serious cases, defendants have pleaded guilty under the promise that they would avoid prison time if they had a favorable recommendation from the county’s Adult Probation Department. He said sometimes those reports don’t favor probation and the defendant has been allowed to withdraw a guilty plea.
Cillo countered that is typically done with the agreement of prosecutors, something he said wouldn’t be the case if it were done for Jackson. Miraldi said he doesn’t think prosecutors have always agreed to similar deals in the past.
Cillo also suggested that if Miraldi agreed to a plea in the case, he would ask the Ohio Supreme Court to intervene or immediately appeal, something he said wouldn’t be fair to Walton’s family because it would force them to wait even longer for the case to be resolved. The case is nearly six years old and he said most of the delays have come from the defense, not his office.
Jackson also suffered a stroke while being held at the Lorain County Jail in 2012 and his subsequent recovery led to additional delays in the start of his trial.
After the hearing, Wightman and Rich said that they offered for their client to plead guilty and serve a life prison sentence, but prosecutors rejected the deal.
During the hearing, Cillo said that a death sentence was an appropriate punishment for Jackson.
“I find no bigger animal in the state of Ohio than what he did in this case,” Cillo said. “If not him, then who when it comes to the death penalty?”
Miraldi delayed making a decision Tuesday, giving both sides a chance to further review their legal arguments before continuing the hearing this morning.
The judge did grant a request from Rich to remove the records of the case from the website of county Clerk of Courts Ron Nabakowski for the duration of the trial to prevent jurors from accessing the information. The documents remain available to the public in Nabakowski’s office.