Thursday, August 12, 2004

Clerk error misinforms state about capital case

Ohio lost death-penalty issue, but was accidentally told it had won

By John Nolan
The Associated Press

A mistake by a clerk at a federal appeals court incorrectly informed Ohio Attorney General Jim Petro's office that the state had won an issue in a death-penalty case when it actually had lost, officials said Wednesday.

Ohio had asked the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals to reconsider its earlier decision that set aside the aggravated murder conviction and death penalty sentence for John D. Stumpf, granting him a new trial for a woman's 1984 slaying.

The court issued an order Monday denying Ohio's request to rehear the issue, but an employee in the court clerk's office mistakenly made a record entry saying the court had granted the state's request, the employee said Wednesday.

Acting on that wrong information, the attorney general's office notified the family of the slaying victim that the state had won the right to argue for reinstatement of Stumpf's murder conviction and death sentence, said Kim Norris, a spokeswoman for the attorney general.

Upon learning of the error Wednesday, Petro's office notified the family of Guernsey County slaying victim Mary Jane Stout that the state had lost its appeal, Norris said.

"They're very upset," Norris said of the family. "This is a tragic mistake by the 6th Circuit clerk. The impact on the victim's family is impossible to measure."

The state is considering whether to appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court, Norris said.

Carol Heise, an attorney for Stumpf, said she is pleased the court denied the state's request for a rehearing. Stumpf, 43, remains on death row at the state's Mansfield prison while the appeal is pending.

Beverly Harris, an employee of the 6th Circuit clerk's office, said Wednesday that she had incorrectly entered a notation into the court's records that the state's rehearing request had been granted, rather than denied. Stumpf's attorney said that Harris became aware of the error when they talked about the case.

In April, a three-judge appeals panel ruled 2-1 that Stumpf's guilty plea to aggravated murder was unconstitutional. The appeals court, reversing a 2001 lower court ruling, said then that Ohio would have the option to retry Stumpf within 90 days. Two appeals judges concluded that Stumpf wasn't fully informed as to the possible consequences of his plea, and that the state failed to meet its burden of demonstrating his plea was voluntary.

Stumpf was sentenced to die because he was found to have committed murder to escape capture and punishment for other offenses, including robbery and attempted murder. There is no date for his execution while his appeal is pending.

Stumpf said that his accomplice, Clyde Wesley, shot Stout.

Wesley was separately convicted of aggravated murder, attempted aggravated murder and aggravated robbery and is serving a life sentence. Authorities said Stumpf and Wesley entered a house to rob its occupants and that the woman was killed after her husband, Norman Stout, was shot twice in the head, but survived.

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