News: Death Gets Another Chance

New trial will examine one inmate's role in prison riot

Aug 1, 2002 at 2:06 pm

It's been almost 10 years since more than 200 inmates at the Southern Ohio Correctional Facility in Lucasville staged a notorious 11-day riot.

The riot ended with one dead guard, nine dead inmates and enough trials and appeals to keep the courts busy for years to come.

Lucasville might have been the longest prison siege in U.S. history. Subsequent trials led to death sentences for five inmates — the so-called Lucasville 5, who, prosecutors believe, led the riot.

In February the Ohio Supreme Court granted a new trial to one of the five, James Were, 45, who at the time of the riot was serving 15 to 65 years for aggravated robbery and felonious assault.

Death penalty opponents have closely scrutinized the trial records for the so-called Lucasville Five, four of whom, including Were, were charged in the strangulation of Corrections Officer Robert Vallandingham. Death penalty opponents believe the record shows some of the five were wrongly convicted on the testimony of jailhouse snitches motivated by prosecutors' threats and plea deals.

The opponents also believe prosecutors went after the Lucasville Five because they were the most visible inmates — the ones who spoke to the media. They hope the retrial of Were, who goes by the Muslim name Namir Abdul Mateen, will prove their theory.

The Supreme Court voted 5-2 to grant a new trial because Were never received a psychiatric evaluation, in part because he refused to submit to one.

Instead, Hamilton County Common Pleas Judge Fred Cartolano declared him competent for trial.

"As far as I know, it's only the second death penalty case to be overturned by the Ohio Supreme Court," says Were's attorney, Elizabeth Agar of Cincinnati.

'Due process demands it'
Agar raised 31 issues in Were's appeal, ranging from his refusal to work with court-appointed attorneys to the over-the-top rhetoric used by prosecutors. At trial, prosecutors labeled the Sunni Muslims — a group Were belonged to — a "gang" instead of a religious group and talked a lot about the effect Vallandingham's death had on his family.

"That's a fairly common problem in Hamilton County," Agar says.

The Ohio Supreme Court has reprimanded local prosecutors for using inflammatory language in 14 death penalty cases since 1988, but hasn't overturned any because of it. The Ohio Supreme Court granted Were a retrial for one reason: He was never given the full competency evaluation requested four times by one of his attorneys, John Mackey.

The court also noted Were's almost paranoid behavior. He believed Mackey was taping their conversations and turning them over to prosecutors.

"But since Were refused to meet with the examiners, the court's decision that he was competent was made without psychiatric evaluation and without a hearing. And that was clearly an error by the trial court," Justice Paul Pfeifer wrote in a March column on the court's Web site. "Overturning the trial and conviction of James Were in order to give him a competency hearing is not a terribly satisfying conclusion to any of this. But our system of due process demands it."

Hamilton County Chief Assistant Prosecutor Mark Piepmeier isn't relishing the task of reassembling the case. He coordinated the post-Lucasville prosecutions that ended with convictions on 47 of the 50 inmates indicted.

The prosecution will again have to rely on the testimony of other inmates.

"Since then a number of (inmates) were paroled," Piepmeier says. "I don't know if we can get them back. I don't know how cooperative they are going to be."

Prosecutors, however, still have the so-called "tunnel tapes," which the FBI secretly made in the prison's maintenance tunnels during the riot. The tapes were evidence during some of the trials, including Were's.

Two witnesses recant
When the prison riots broke out at about 2 p.m. Easter Sunday 1993, some 200 inmates were returning inside from recreation. They overwhelmed guards and in about an hour controlled a part of the prison housing about 700 inmates.

The Sunni Muslims were the largest group involved in the riot, according to trial statements by Daniel Hogan, then an assistant prosecutor in Franklin County. There was also the Aryan Brotherhood, a group of about 20 led by Lucasville Five members Jason Robb and George Skatzes; and the Black Gangster Disciples, a group of eight to 12 led by Anthony Lavelle, according to Hogan.

The spark that ignited the riot was probably the hard-line stance the warden took against the Muslims' requests and against the inmates in general, according to Staughton Lynd, an attorney and death penalty opponent.

The Muslims refused to take a tuberculosis test involving injecting alcohol, a forbidden substance, and instead asked to take a similarly effective test that used saliva. The warden refused, saying the administration wouldn't let prisoners dictate policies, according to testimony cited by Lynd.

Prisoners believed the warden was set to lock down Lucasville to administer the injection tests. The decision was one of many the inmates saw as arbitrary, Lynd says.

The Lucasville Five were not suspected of strangling Vallandingham, but of ordering others to do so. Lavelle, who didn't see the killing, testified eight prisoners agreed to kill a guard unless utilities were restored. Within hours, Vallandingham was dead.

However, Lynd says the inmates who testified for the prosecution offered many different versions of events, as did the inmates on trial. Lynd believes Lavelle, who faced a death sentence if he didn't cooperate, had as much or more of a connection to Vallandingham's death than Were.

"There's a lot more evidence for that than was presented at the trial," Lynd says.

Piepmeier acknowledges some of the inmates might have been trying to help themselves.

"I'm sure there are a fair number that cooperated with the hopes that it might benefit them," he says. "I think a number of them were really bothered by what happened (to Vallandingham)."

Not all the inmates believed the riot a good idea, Piepmeier says. Some were hard-liners; others didn't think killing a guard would help inmates.

"Were was one of the people who were obviously one of the hard-liners," Piepmeier says.

The tunnel tapes allegedly include Were, in his distinctive voice, talking about cutting off a guard's hand and throwing it into the yard to show the inmates were serious.

"In Were's case in particular, (the tapes) were pretty important," Piepmeier says.

Two of the inmates who testified against Were — Sherman Sims and Kenneth Law — recanted their testimony, according to Lynd.

Piepmeier says prosecutors talked to Sims, who said he was "just trying to survive." Most of the inmates killed during the riots were apparently believed to be snitches. Many inmates who testified for the prosecution have been moved out of state or to isolated areas for their safety.

The rest of the Lucasville Five haven't fared as well as Were. The Ohio Supreme Court upheld Robb's, Keith Lamar's and Sanders' murder convictions. Skatzes' appeal hasn't reached the Ohio Supreme Court. ©