Tuesday, June 8, 2004

Killer reaches date with death

Zuern scheduled for execution in jailer's murder

By Sharon Coolidge
The Cincinnati Enquirer

Twenty years after he stabbed a Hamilton County jailer in the heart with a sharpened bucket handle, William Zuern is scheduled to be executed this morning.

Zuern, 45, is to die by lethal injection at 10 a.m. at the Southern Ohio Correctional Facility in Lucasville for killing Phillip Pence at the now-closed Camp Washington jail.

Pence, 26, was working as a corrections officer and had volunteered to check Zuern's cell for weapons when he was stabbed. Zuern had made death threats to another inmate the day before.

But during appeals seeking to reduce the death penalty to a lesser sentence, Zuern's lawyers argued that he didn't mean to kill Pence June 9, 1984.

Zuern's death is to come just one day shy of the 20th anniversary of Pence's slaying.

In preparation for his execution, authorities moved Zuern from his cell at the Mansfield Correctional Institution to Lucasville at 1 p.m. Monday. He ate his last dinner, including mashed potatoes and gravy, lasagna, cherry cheesecake and chocolate milk, Monday night.

Zuern's attorneys made last-minute appeals to halt the execution, but by 7 p.m., the U.S. 6th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that the execution must go forward. The attorneys said late Monday they would not appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court, their last chance for a reprieve.

Hamilton County Sheriff's Office Det. Sgt. Mike Horton was on duty the night Pence was killed and said Zuern's death has been long awaited.

"This is the right outcome," he said.

Horton, who was in the same corrections academy as Pence, described the 26-year-old Anderson Township man as fun and full of mischief. Pence was known for his practical jokes, was single and focused on his career.

He was dedicated to his mother, Evelyn Pence, who has since died.

After he was stabbed and as paramedics rushed him to the hospital, Pence told others: "Tell my mom I'll be OK."

Horton said Pence's death seems like yesterday.

"I get goose bumps now talking about it," Horton said.

Zuern, of Price Hill, was arrested in May 1984, accused of killing Gregory Earls, 24. While awaiting trial, Zuern was jailed at the now-closed Civil War-era prison known as the Workhouse, in Camp Washington.

In June 1984, inmates reported that they saw Zuern making a shank he fashioned from a metal bucket handle by sharpening one end and fixing a loop at the other so it would fit around his finger.

"He is crazy, man. He is in here for murder, and he won't hesitate to do it again," one inmate cautioned authorities, according to trial testimony at the time.

Jail officials were aware that Zuern was upset with guards because they didn't give him his full five minutes of telephone time.

June 9, jail authorities ordered searches of Zuern's and another inmate's cells.

Pence volunteered to search Zuern's cell. Horton led Pence to the maximum-security cell block.

As they approached the cell about 10:20 p.m., Zuern was lying naked on his bed. When Pence ordered him to stand, exit the cell and place his hands on the wall, Zuern lunged at Pence and stabbed him in the chest with the shank and pulled it back out.

"There wasn't any blood, you couldn't tell what happened, it happened so fast," Horton said.

As Pence was lifted on a gurney for the trip to the hospital, Horton recalls him saying, "I'll be OK, I'll be OK. Tell my mom, I'll be OK."

Pence died at University Hospital two hours later.

Zuern refused to talk to investigators, said Hamilton County Sheriff's Sgt. Ron Reckers, who signed the murder charge against Zuern.

"It was his intention to kill somebody," Reckers said. "I had to think it was easy for him. He did it once before in a neighborhood dispute."

A Hamilton County grand jury indicted Zuern two days later on aggravated murder, which carried a possible death sentence.

"Of all the cases I've tried, he has to be the meanest man I've had the misfortune to be in the presence of," Hamilton County Prosecutor Art Ney said during the trial in October 1984.

After four hours of deliberation, a jury convicted Zuern.

During the penalty phase of the trial, Zuern refused to make excuses.

"I have no death wish, and I do not wish to die; however, it is not my nature to beg and crawl," Zuern said. "In light of all of the circumstances, I wish to maintain my self-respect."

The jury recommended death.

In 2001, Gov. Bob Taft eliminated the electric chair as a form of execution. Lethal injection is the only method of execution currently used in Ohio.

Zuern is also serving a life sentence for Earls' May 13, 1984, death.

"He seemed to have no feelings about anything,'' Reckers said. "From what I've followed, he still doesn't - he had nothing to live for and nothing to lose."

E-mail scoolidge@enquirer.com

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