Ohio Gov. John Kasich today commuted a looming death sentence for Raymond Tibbetts, a man convicted of two murders in Cincinnati.
Earlier this year, Kasich temporarily halted Tibbetts' execution after a former juror at his trial expressed regret for the sentence, citing evidence about Tibbetts' abusive childhood and mental illness he believes was withheld from jurors. Tibbetts will now serve life in prison without the possibility of parole.
"Tibbets’s commutation is being granted as a result of fundamental flaws in the sentencing phase of his trial," a statement from Kasich's office reads. "Specifically, the defense’s failure to present sufficient mitigating evidence, coupled with an inaccurate description of Tibbetts’s childhood by the prosecution, essentially prevented the jury from making an informed decision about whether Tibbetts deserved the death penalty."
Tibbetts was convicted of stabbing 67-year-old Fred Hicks to death and beating Hicks' 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.Those opponents included a juror in Tibbetts' case, Ross Geiger, who penned a letter to Kasich in January begging the governor commute Tibbetts' sentence.
“I am writing today to ask you to show mercy to Raymond Tibbets by commuting his death sentence to life in prison with no possibility of parole,” Geiger wrote. "This is not an easy request for me as I was a juror on the trial for that horrible crime."
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.
But after a special clemency hearing in June, the State of Ohio Adult Parole Authority released its recommendation that Ohio Gov. John Kasich not halt Tibbetts' execution. The nine-member parole board arrived at that decision 8-1.
"While the Parole Board believes that Geiger submitted his letter with the best of intentions, members are not convinced that his decision would have been different had the information been presented in the same manner at trial, when the results would have been deliberated within the jury setting," the board wrote. "The vicious and gratuitous murder of Fred Hicks immediately following the brutal slaying of Judith Sue Crawford was so heinous that the mitigation as presented does not outweigh the aggravating factors in this case."
Tibbetts' attorney Erin Barnhart, however, says Kasich made the right choice.
"Governor Kasich acted in the interests of fairness and justice by recognizing that Mr. Tibbetts’ death sentence was fundamentally unreliable," Barnhart wrote in a statement today. "The jury was deprived of crucial information about the abusive and traumatic upbringing and the long-term impact it had on Mr. Tibbetts and his siblings. These circumstances provided compelling reasons for the exercise of clemency to correct the failures in the legal process in this case. Governor Kasich has done our State a great service today by rectifying this wrong and ensuring that the checks and balances in our criminal justice system can work.”
Kasich today also granted a temporary reprieve for Cleveland Jackson, who was convicted of two 2002 murders. The reprieve pushes his execution until May, 2019, giving his new attorneys time to prepare for a hearing before the state's clemency board.