News: Killing a Family

Seeking mercy for a murderer -- from the same family

Mar 1, 2006 at 2:06 pm
Graham Lienhart

Eddie and Samantha Sanders are working to gain clemency for the man who killed their relative, Emma Hill, shown in framed photo. The man convicted of the crime is also a family member.

The voices demanding vengeance after a murder usually come from the family of the victim. What happens when the killer and the victim are members of the same family?

One Cincinnati family found out the hard way in 1991 when Jeffery Hill killed his mother, Emma Hill, stabbing her to death while high on crack cocaine. Fifteen years later, his state and federal appeals exhausted, Hill is awaiting an execution date from the Ohio Supreme Court, and his family works to keep him alive.

"We were never mad with him," says Eddie Sanders Sr., Emma Hill's younger brother. "We was just sad he'd done something like this. I don't think getting revenge for her would be the right way to go. I think it's revenge enough that a man has to spend all that time locked up, rather than just meet his death like this."

Sanders is one of the many family members, including Emma Hill's surviving siblings and son, nephews, nieces and grandchildren, who have signed a petition for clemency.

"We don't really believe in the death penalty," Sanders says.

"I came up in a time when it was 'Live and let live.' Now it's 'Live and let die.' But I'm still on the old school. That's what I believe in. As you go from year to year, you start to appreciate life a little bit more. You don't wanna just see someone die because they made a mistake."

Sanders' daughter, Samantha, agrees.

"I think the governor really should listen," she says. "We all make mistakes, and I am not the person I was 20 years ago, thank goodness. I've made mistakes and I'm a better person. I have to believe Jeffery's a better person."

The 30-minute defense
The night before the murder, Hill went on a crack cocaine binge. He stayed up all night and consumed $400 worth of the drug before visiting his mother's apartment. They got into an argument, and the next thing Hill knew, his mother was lying on the floor, stabbed multiple times with a kitchen knife.

Hill was picked up by the police later that evening while driving without his lights on. Officers found a crack pipe in his car. Later, his phone call from jail to check on his mother led to the police finding her body. He confessed three days later, after he remembered what happened.

Tim Payne, assistant state public defender, has represented Hill for seven years. He says the death penalty isn't appropriate in this case.

"He didn't have any adult criminal record involving violence," Payne says. "The victim's family does not want the death penalty. The offense was out of character and wouldn't have happened but for his crack cocaine addiction. He's certainly not what one would think of as the worst of the worst criminal defendants."

Noting that other murders in Ohio involving individuals high on crack cocaine haven't garnered the death penalty, Payne says the fact that Hill was prosecuted in Hamilton County is a factor.

"This is another case where defense counsel, in the assessment of our office, was deplorable and provided deficient performance," he says. "This case took over a year to go to trial, the client confessed to the crime. Council had to have known their best shot at helping the client was at sentencing, but they did not start preparing for sentencing until the very last minute."

An expert on mental health and addiction who was supposed to testify on Hill's behalf was hired less than 24 hours before the hearing and spent only 20 or 30 minutes with Hill the morning before he testified, Payne says. He believes one factor is money.

"Hamilton County's been notorious in terms of the poor compensation for public defenders in death penalty cases," Payne says. "Ten years later, when you get into federal (habeas corpus hearings), those attorneys are paid $160 an hour. It seems a little out of kilter."

Death row families
A habeas corpus action, which begins the federal appeals of the conviction and sentence of the state court, can't happen until an execution date is set. Hill doesn't have one yet.

Hill joined in the Cooey v. Taft lawsuit that challenges Ohio's use of a three-drug lethal injection. It argues that one of the drugs masks the pain suffered during the execution. Payne isn't sure if the court is waiting on the outcome of that case to set the execution date requested by the state.

In the meantime, the family is doing everything it can to avert another tragedy. They began working with Families That Matter (FTM), organized by the Intercommunity Justice and Peace Center, (IJPC) in 2005. FTM trains families to prepare a clemency campaign, including drafting and circulating a petition requesting clemency.

A clemency hearing would be scheduled after federal appeals are finished.

IJPC is giving this "death row family" and others like them a voice. The group works in conjunction with the Ohioans to Stop Executions to educate the public about the effect that state-sanctioned murder has on families and the community.

Sanders says the ideal outcome would be seeing his nephew walk out of prison and having an opportunity to begin again. He's hoping for clemency because he doesn't want to have to bury another family member.

His daughter agrees. For now she appreciates what the fight to keep her cousin alive has already accomplished.

"I find something very interesting," Samantha Sanders says. "When we get together to meet with the attorney and the case workers ... more and more people volunteering to write a letter to do this, to do that. I see my dad and his brothers and sisters sitting around the table. It's unfortunate that we're here like this. I feel kind of sad, but it's nice to come together just be supportive of one another."

Contact Eunice Timoney-Ravenna at [email protected] or 513-579-8547 to sign a petition to spare Jeffrey Hill or volunteer with Families That Matter.