ELYRIA — Vincent Jackson Jr. did not enter his expected plea Tuesday to aggravated murder and other charges in the June 2008 shooting death of Gas USA employee Qiana Walton.
Instead, defense attorneys and prosecutors argued over whether Jackson can plead out to all of the charges against him except the capital specification that could result in him receiving the death penalty.
A three-judge panel comprised of Lorain County Common Pleas judges James Miradi, John Miraldi and Mark Betleski ultimately agreed to the request. Jackson now is expected to enter his pleas during a hearing Thursday.
Although most of the arguments over the unusual plea took place behind closed doors, Assistant County Prosecutor Tony Cillo said during a brief hearing that he doesn’t believe Jackson can plead only to part of the indictment.
“There’s no authority to plead to aggravated murder and try the capital specification to a three-judge panel,” Cillo said.
Defense attorney Dan Wightman, however, said he believes the law allows such pleas in part because the judges will have to find Jackson guilty beyond a reasonable doubt of the capital specification in order to consider the death penalty.
Under the law, when a defendant pleads guilty in a capital murder case, prosecutors still must present evidence in the case and the panel of judges then must determine whether to accept the plea. In other criminal cases, prosecutors are under no such obligation to produce evidence when a defendant enters a guilty plea.
The benefit to pleading guilty in a capital murder case is that the judges can consider a guilty plea an expression of remorse and factor it into their decision on whether to impose a death sentence, attorneys in the case said.
“You have to consider it,” Cillo said. “You don’t have to give it any weight.”
Prosecutors have rejected requests from Jackson’s attorneys to drop the death penalty specification in exchange for a guilty plea.
Cillo also raised the issue of whether the unusual nature of the plea is a tactic by Jackson or his attorneys that could lead to a potential death sentence being overturned on appeal.
Wightman denied that was what he and fellow defense attorney J. Anthony Rich were trying to do.
“We are not doing this to create an appellate issue,” he said.
The case, which began after Jackson allegedly shot Walton in the head with an AK-47 while he was robbing the Middle Avenue gas station, has moved slowly through the court system for a variety of reasons, including a 2012 stroke Jackson had at the Lorain County Jail.
The case was supposed to go to trial before a jury in February, but at the last minute, Jackson waived a jury and agreed to plead guilty before a panel of three judges.
When county Common Pleas Judge James Burge was selected for the panel, Cillo objected and took the matter to Ohio Supreme Court Justice Maureen O’Connor, who removed Burge last week, citing the judge’s decision earlier this year to get off all of Cillo’s cases.