On April 30, 1996, Willie Herring and five other men robbed a bar in Youngstown which resulted in the deaths of three people. Herring, who was barely eighteen at the time of the crime, was subsequently convicted of three counts of complicity to commit aggravated murder, two counts of attempted aggravated murder, two counts of aggravated robbery, and firearms specifications.
In the penalty phase of the trial, Herring’s lawyers presented a positive mitigation theory, choosing not to present evidence about Herring’s very troubled upbringing and criminal history. Medical and neurological examinations were not performed and the jury did not hear any testimony from Herring or any experts. Based on the jury’s recommendation, the trial court sentenced Herring to death.
In September 1999, Herring filed a petition for post-conviction relief alleging ineffective assistance of counsel during the mitigation phase of his trial. Affidavits were submitted that provided insight into Herring’s past and family background. The affidavits also revealed that the mitigation specialist retained for Herring’s trial failed to complete a standard investigation and that the jury was not provided with meaningful psychological information about Herring.
After the trial court twice denied Herring’s post-conviction petitions, the Seventh District Court of Appeals vacated Herring’s death sentence and remanded for a new sentencing hearing. The Supreme Court of Ohio agreed to hear the case on appeal by the state.
On December 3, 2014, the Supreme Court of Ohio handed down a merit decision in State v. Herring, 2014-Ohio-5228. In a 4-3 opinion written by Justice Paul Pfeifer, the court granted Herring’s petition for post-conviction relief in this death penalty case on the grounds of ineffective assistance of counsel in failing to properly prepare the mitigation phase of the proceedings. The case was sent back to the trial court for resentencing. Joining Justice Pfeifer in the majority were Chief Justice O’Connor, and Justices French and O’Neill. Justice O’Donnell wrote the dissent, joined by Justices Lanzinger and Kennedy. At the oral argument, at least four of the justices expressed their concern about what the options would be if there were to be a resentencing in the case. Read the complete analysis of the merit decision here.
What Happened on Remand
On October 15, 2015, a hearing was held before Judge John M. Durkin of the Mahoning County Court of Common Pleas on the State’s motion to drop the capital specifications from Herring’s indictment. The prosecutor informed the court that this motion was made at the request of the two surviving victims, who did not want to go through another jury trial. Judge Durkin granted the request and subsequently sentenced Herring to three consecutive life sentences on the murder counts, plus sentences of 10-25 years on each of the other charges, plus time for the gun specification, for a total sentence of 103 years to life. Herring also waived his right to any further appeals.