Just weeks before Ohio executes Raymond Tibbetts for a brutal 1997 Cincinnati murder, one of the jurors who helped put him on death row twenty years ago is asking Gov. John Kasich to pump the brakes on the convicted killer’s Feb. 13 execution.
Ross Geiger’s name appears on who in 1998 convicted Tibbetts of murder and recommended he be put to death. But in to Kasich, Geiger says new evidence has convinced him that the death penalty isn’t appropriate for Tibbetts
“I am writing today to ask you show mercy to Raymond Tibbets by commuting his death sentence to life in prison with no possibility of parole,” Geiger writes. "This is not an easy request for me as I was a juror on the trial for that horrible crime."
Geiger’s reasons for the change of heart stem from revelations not discussed at Tibbetts’ original trial about horrific abuse he suffered as a child, details about his drug addiction and mental illness, lack of preparation from Tibbetts’ defense team during the sentencing portion of his trial and other factors.
Those factors are common in death row cases in Ohio. Twenty-three of Ohio’s 26 death row inmates slated to be put to death by 2020 suffer from cognitive disabilities or mental illness.
Seventeen of those inmates had experienced severe childhood trauma rooted in physical or sexual abuse, and six were experiencing severe mental illness. The othre three of the 26 men on Ohio’s death row waived the opportunity to present mitigating evidence related to their crimes, and thus it’s unknown if they have a history of abuse, mental illness or cognitive disabilities.
Tibbetts was convicted of stabbing to death 67-year-old Fred Hicks and beating his 42-year-old caretaker Judith Crawford to death with a baseball bat in Hicks’ Cincinnati home in 1997. Tibbetts had married Crawford a few weeks prior. Authorities found three knives left in Hicks. The grisly case made big local headlines. Tibbetts was sentenced to death for Hicks’ murder and life in prison without parole for Crawford’s.
But important information about Tibbetts’ background wasn’t explored fully during his trial, opponents of his execution say. Tibbetts, who was heavily addicted to opiates and alcohol, had undiagnosed mental illnesses stemming at least in part from a chaotic and unstable childhood. His biological mother and father were mostly absent, according to testimony from his attorneys before a clemency board hearing in January 2017.
When they were around, they were physically abusive. Tibbetts and his siblings were taken from the home when he was two years old, and he then bounced around between different foster homes and orphanages, where he also experienced abuse and neglect.
Testimony from Tibbetts’ sister about their upbringing, as well as social service records about his childhood, were available but not presented at trial.
In the months before the murders, Tibbetts attempted suicide. He had attempted to get into a treatment program for drug and alcohol addiction a month and a half before killing Hicks and Crawford, but was turned away. Those efforts show Tibbetts was suffering from mental illness, his attorneys have argued.
An Ohio Supreme Court joint task force on the death penalty included a ban on executing the mentally ill among recommendations it has made to the state. Many of those recommendations, including the ban, have not been passed by state lawmakers or implemented by the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Corrections.
A bill introduced into the Ohio General Assembly last year by State Rep. Bill Seitz, a Republican from Cincinnati, would take up that recommendation, preventing the execution of convicts who can prove they were suffering from mental illness or impairment at the time of their crimes and allow current inmates on death row to file for resentencing.
The Massachusetts-based Fair Punishment Project advocates for a more fair and accountable justice system across the country. It says Ohio's death row inmates illustrate big problems with its administration of the state's most severe punishment.
“Unless the governor or a court intervenes, over the course of the next two years, Ohio is poised to violate that constitutional limitation by scheduling the executions of nearly a dozen individuals with devastating impairments, including mental illness, childhood abuse, and intellectual disability,” a report about Ohio FPP issued last year reads.
Others disagree, however. Ohio Prosecuting Attorneys Association Executive Director John Murphy has said that current state laws against executions for the mentally ill or disabled are adequate safeguards and that any further bars would inhibit the justice system from appropriately applying the death penalty.
Research has shown that experiencing abuse can greatly affect a person’s long-term mental health and cause a number of behavioral issues. Psychological experts who testified at Tibbetts’ clemency hearing said that the persistent abuse and neglect “rewired” his brain, and that his background was a “recipe for disaster.”
Despite those statements, Tibbetts’ clemency board voted 11-1 against commuting his sentence. Another attempt to save Tibbetts from lethal injection failed Feb. 1 when the U.S. Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals turned down a constitutional challenge to that execution method. Ohio uses a controversial three-drug execution method that opponents say can cause a slow, possible painful death.
The U.S. Court of Appeals in 2011 also upheld Tibbetts’ sentence. But in their decision, the three judges acknowledged that representation at his trial was inadequate.
Tibbetts’ attorney “certainly could have conducted a more thorough investigation” into this upbringing, two judges voting to uphold the sentence wrote. But they also argued that the brutality of the crime went beyond any justification, including childhood abuse. But a dissenting judge argued that his attorney’s “failure to engage in basic preparation” meant that his sentence should be reconsidered.
Geiger agrees, citing the fact that he had no idea when he was sequestered in a jury room twenty years ago that detailed records and testimony were available showing Tibbetts had been abused and was struggling with mental illness and addiction at the time of the murders.
“Based on what I know today I would not have recommended the death penalty,” he wrote in his letter to Kasich.