Billy Slagle is going to die on Aug. 7. The Ohio Parole Board recommended against granting Slagle clemency on July 16, and Gov. John Kasich last week denied Slagle’s request to have his death sentence commuted to life in prison.
There’s not much left for Slagle and his family. From the date of this publication, only seven horrific days remain until he is strapped to a chair and administered an injection of Pentobarbital. His hands are literally tied, as are the hands of his defense team, figuratively.
And Billy Slagle’s defense, says Allison Smith of Ohioans to Stop Executions (OTSE), has been remarkable, even historic, in that Slagle’s cause has been taken up by Cuyahoga County Prosecutor Tim McGinty. McGinty is the current successor to retired prosecutor William Caine, who won the guilty verdict and death sentence in 1988.
McGinty, in a written statement to the Parole Board, stated that it is unlikely that his office would seek a death sentence against Slagle were his case to be tried today due to a confluence of reasons: Life sentences without possibility of parole are now a sentencing option, though they were not 25 years ago when Slagle was tried; Slagle was 18 when he committed the crimes for which he was found guilty; and Slagle had a long history of adolescent alcohol and drug abuse.
McGinty wrote in a letter issued July 3, “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.”
Smith of OTSE says, “What of course makes this case so unusual is the support from Prosecutor McGingty. We’re fairly certain that this is the first time this has ever happened (in Ohio).”
Caine argued at the clemency hearing that the verdict was just. He described the terror that Slagle’s neighbor, Mari Anne Pope, age 40 at the time of her death, must have experienced: awoken before dawn by Slagle breaking into her home; two young children she was watching for a friend in the house; screaming and praying as Slagle sat on her chest and proceeded to beat her and stab her 17 times with a pair of scissors; the children witnessing the crime before fleeing.
Though Slagle was acquitted of attempting to rape Pope, he was found only in his underwear, and Pope’s nightgown had been pulled up to her neck.
After the children ran to a nearby house, authorities were called and Slagle was found at the scene by police, hiding and holding the bloody scissors. Caine called this an “urban nightmare.”
The terror was ongoing, as told by Lauretta Keeton, mother of the children who ran from Pope’s home. Both endured years of nightmares and counseling in the years that followed. At the hearing, she said the girl slept with knives at her bedside and carries a handgun with her in public today. The boy was haunted as well. Keeton cited the incident as a contributing factor in her son’s suicide at age 23.
In a video statement reviewed by the parole board, Slagle said he had a history of blackouts and recalled only flashes of the crime: breaking into the home, holding the scissors above Pope and his capture.
Smith points out that there is an additional horror: Slagle’s childhood. She says that Slagle is said to have had his first drink of alcohol at age 5 and that his childhood was marked by parents who engaged in frequent alcoholism and abuse.
“He was only 18,” Smith says. “He was severely addicted to alcohol and drugs. He grew up in a very chaotic environment.”
Smith said that Slagle’s parents divorced when he was young and that his mother had a series of boyfriends who abused Slagle. She said Slagle’s defense argued that he was emotionally more like a 12-year-old at the time of his crime. Since his incarceration, he has emerged as a model prisoner, has participated in educational programs at the prison in Chillicothe where he’s being held and wants very much to live. She says Slagle wants to work with animals and continue and expand his relationship with his family. He has expressed remorse over his crime against Pope.
Slagle’s public defenders, Vicki Werneke and Joseph Wilhelm, argued that Slagle’s clemency should be granted on the basis of his age and terrible home life. At the hearing, the defense stated that Slagle was in the system as a youth for juvenile crimes, including an assault charge that also involved an attack with scissors. Slagle was already in the system but had little support from his family and missed a chance at rehabilitation as a youth. Those issues were not brought to light by the defense at the 1988 trial.
Werneke and Wilhelm also cited a biased juror who said in an affidavit that she would not consider mitigating circumstances when it came to murder. The fact that Slagle’s mother was a full-blooded Chippewa was also important, Werneke and Wilhelm said. His mother and her family were relocated to Cleveland in the 1960s as part of a Bureau of Indian Affairs program that contributed to “intergenerational trauma” and a neglectful family environment. Slagle’s now supportive remaining family, his two sisters and stepfather, were cited as another reason that he should be spared.
In a statement sent to CityBeat, Billy Slagle’s sister Lisa Craft said, “Yes, it’s true, Mari Ann Pope was murdered and no one can deny the tragic loss. But Billy didn’t do this; at least, not the Billy we know and love. Billy was gentle and shy. He loved animals — he still loves animals. The person who committed this crime had a broken brain, a brain that couldn’t function through the fog of alcohol and drugs that night. I hope the Pope family can find peace, but I don’t think they’ll find it if Ohio executes my brother.” ©
Clarification: This story originally implied the juror mentioned in the story was biased against Chippewas. The juror was not. This has been fixed in the story.