Thursday, July 15, 2004

Man executed for 1989 murder of woman, girl

'There were no winners today, there was only justice'

By Anita Chang
The Associated Press

LUCASVILLE, Ohio - A man executed Wednesday for killing his girlfriend and their daughter smiled at his sister while strapped to the gurney, after she blew him a kiss and whispered, "I love you."

Stephen Vrabel, 47, was pronounced dead eight minutes later, at 10:14 a.m. at the Southern Ohio Correctional Facility. He was the second death row inmate since 1999 to drop his appeals to speed his execution.

Authorities said Vrabel shot Susan Clemente, 29, his girlfriend of about four years, and 3-year-old Lisa Clemente in their heads, on March 3, 1989, at their apartment in the Youngstown suburb of Struthers. He had bought the handgun that day.

"I want to thank my sister for all the joy and happiness she brought into Lisa's life, and I want to apologize to anyone I may have wronged in my life," Vrabel, speaking in a clear voice, said in his final statement.

Vrabel's sister, Karen Koval, sobbed quietly throughout the execution and leaned on her son, Greg Koval. Susan Clemente's father, son, two brothers, and two brothers-in-law also witnessed the execution. The men were silent and did not show any emotion.

After giving his statement, Vrabel began blinking rapidly, and after the drugs took effect, he breathed deeply three times, gasped twice, then took a series of shallow breaths. His Adam's apple bobbed up and down several times, and then he was still.

The execution team had trouble inserting a shunt into Vrabel's right arm before the execution and finally got it in after several tries.

One of Clemente's brothers-in-law addressed the media afterward, joined by 18 other family members and friends.

"Susan and Lisa Clemente have finally been put to rest after 15 years of legal battles with the court system. They both can rest in peace now knowing that this nightmare has finally come to an end," Kenneth Kotouch said, standing near poster-size photographs of the victims.

"There were no winners today, there was only justice," he said.

Vrabel spent most of Tuesday evening watching Major League Baseball's All-Star game on television, prison system spokesman Larry Greene said. Vrabel also visited with his sister and nephew.

Vrabel, who confessed to the killings, voluntarily dropped appeals on his two murder convictions to speed his execution. He was the 13th man executed since 1999, including four others this year.

Gov. Bob Taft on Monday declined to stop Vrabel's scheduled execution. The Ohio Parole Board earlier voted against recommending clemency.

Vrabel has never said why he shot Susan Clemente. He said he shot their daughter - whom he described Friday as a "perfect child" - because she was "freaking out" about her mother's death and he thought killing her was best because her mother was dead and he was going to jail.

After the shootings, Vrabel fled the apartment. But he returned days later and placed Clemente's body in the refrigerator and Lisa's in the freezer - along with her favorite stuffed animals, a bear and a bunny. Vrabel continued to live in the apartment for a month.

A relative of Clemente's found the bodies when he went to the apartment to collect overdue rent money. When he learned of the discovery, Vrabel confessed to a priest and then to police.

Vrabel worked various jobs, including as a floor stripper, gas station attendant and jewelry salesman. Clemente was a nursing home aide.

After spending five years at a psychiatric center, Vrabel was ruled competent to stand trial in 1995 and was convicted of aggravated murder.

At trial, Vrabel's attorneys tried to prove that he was insane and could not distinguish between right and wrong. Numerous issues were raised in his appeal, including that he was incompetent to stand trial.

Vrabel had delusions that his attorneys were acting as spies, according to a 1990 psychiatrist's report. When Vrabel was later found competent, one expert concluded that Vrabel had faked his mental illness to avoid prosecution.

The Ohio Supreme Court upheld Vrabel's death sentence by a 4-3 vote last year. Chief Justice Thomas Moyer argued that Vrabel didn't fall into the category of killers the state's death penalty was reserved for because of his mental health problems.

Vrabel will be buried Thursday in a state-owned cemetery in Chillicothe, Greene said.

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