State v. Lawson, 2019-0487

CourtUnited States State Supreme Court of Ohio
Writing for the CourtKennedy, J.
Citation179 N.E.3d 1216
Parties The STATE of Ohio, Appellee, v. LAWSON, Appellant.
Docket NumberNo. 2019-0487,2019-0487
Decision Date07 October 2021

179 N.E.3d 1216

The STATE of Ohio, Appellee,
v.
LAWSON, Appellant.

No. 2019-0487

Supreme Court of Ohio.

Submitted March 2, 2021
Decided October 7, 2021


Brigham M. Anderson, Lawrence County Prosecuting Attorney, and Stephen E. Maher and Margaret S. Moore, Special Assistant Prosecuting Attorneys, for appellee.

Thomas A. Rein and Robert A. Dixon, Cleveland, for appellant.

Kennedy, J.

179 N.E.3d 1221

{¶ 1} This is a death-penalty appeal as of right.

{¶ 2} On October 11, 2017, appellant, Arron L. Lawson, murdered four people: Stacey Holston, her eight-year-old son D.H., her mother, Tammie McGuire, and her mother's husband, Donald McGuire. On October 13, Lawson surrendered to police and confessed to the murders.

{¶ 3} The Lawrence County grand jury returned an 11-count indictment, including four counts of aggravated murder with multiple death specifications. Lawson entered guilty pleas to all counts and specifications of the indictment. Pursuant to R.C. 2945.06, a three-judge panel of the common pleas court heard the state's evidence of guilt with regard to the capital charges. The panel found Lawson guilty of four counts of aggravated murder with multiple death specifications as to each count. The panel then conducted a sentencing hearing and sentenced Lawson to death for each aggravated murder.

{¶ 4} In this appeal, Lawson raises five propositions of law. We overrule each of the propositions of law. After conducting an independent review, we conclude that although significant mitigating factors exist, the aggravating circumstances outweigh the mitigating factors beyond a reasonable doubt as to each of the four aggravated murders. We further conclude that each death sentence is appropriate and proportionate. Therefore, we affirm all four death sentences.

I. FACTS AND PROCEDURAL HISTORY

A. Facts

{¶ 5} Arron Lawson was Stacey Holston's first cousin. Stacey lived with her husband, Todd Holston, and their sons, D.H. and two-year-old B.H., near Pedro, Ohio. Lawson lived nearby and was in the habit of visiting the Holstons daily.

{¶ 6} Lawson was infatuated with Stacey; he told his mother that she was "the love of his life." In his confession, he stated that he and Stacey had been having a sexual affair, which Stacey had broken off "[a]bout a week ago," i.e., approximately October 6, 2017.

{¶ 7} Lawson visited Stacey on Tuesday, October 10, 2017, the day before the murders, while Todd was at work. During this visit, Lawson surreptitiously entered a bedroom at the back of the house, opened a window, and inserted a book between the window and the sill to hold the window partly open. By his own later admission, he did this with the intention of entering the house the next day to commit murder.

{¶ 8} At about 7:15 p.m., when Todd came home, Lawson was still there with Stacey and the children. At Stacey's request, Todd drove Lawson home. Todd testified at trial that Lawson "wasn't too happy about" being sent home.

{¶ 9} The next morning, Todd left for work at approximately 4:30 a.m. About half an hour later, Lawson entered the Holstons’ residence through the rear window. He had a 20-gauge shotgun, eight shells loaded with slugs, and a backpack containing flashlights, toilet paper, knives, a tarp, and other items. Lawson hid in the back bedroom until about 8:30 a.m.

{¶ 10} Meanwhile, D.H.’s school bus arrived and D.H. left the house to go to school. Stacey sent with him a note directing the school to put D.H. on a different bus that afternoon than he normally rode and to take him to his grandparents’ house.

{¶ 11} By 8:30, after D.H. had left, Stacey was in the home with B.H. Stacey

179 N.E.3d 1222

entered the back bedroom where Lawson was hiding, and Lawson shot her three times in the chest and shoulder. She fell to the floor.

{¶ 12} Lawson dragged her body to D.H.’s bedroom, where he lifted her onto a futon bed and, using a condom, had sex with her corpse. Lawson discarded the condom in the kitchen wastebasket. He then returned to the bedroom and covered Stacey's body with a blanket and the futon's mattress.

{¶ 13} As these events were occurring, Todd was at a worksite in Maysville, Kentucky, where he clocked in at 6:43 a.m. It was Stacey's habit to send Todd a text message early every morning to make sure he had arrived safely at work. When she failed to do so on October 11, Todd began to worry. He repeatedly tried to call and text her throughout the day, but she did not respond.

{¶ 14} At 9:23 a.m., Lawson used Stacey's cell phone to call D.H.’s school. Posing as Todd, Lawson told the school's guidance secretary that D.H.’s grandfather was unable to watch D.H. that day, so D.H. should be taken home on his usual bus that afternoon. Lawson spoke calmly and gave the guidance secretary no reason to doubt he was who he claimed to be. Because Lawson was using Stacey's phone, the phone number on the school's caller ID matched the number on file in the office. So the original arrangement was canceled and D.H. was brought home after school. Meanwhile, Lawson waited at the Holstons’ residence. He fed B.H., changed his diaper, and later put him down for a nap in the main bedroom.

{¶ 15} When D.H. arrived home, Lawson sat with him in the living room and they talked about school. However, D.H. began asking Lawson where his mother was and when his father was coming home. Lacking answers, Lawson told D.H. that Lawson's PlayStation 3 was in D.H.’s room behind the dresser. D.H. went to his bedroom. As D.H. looked behind his dresser, Lawson shot him twice, once in the arm and once in the torso. Lawson left the boy's body where it fell and covered it with clothes. After killing D.H., Lawson continued to wait in the Holstons’ residence.

{¶ 16} Around 6:30 or 6:40 p.m., Todd tried again to contact Stacey on his way home from his worksite. He then called Stacey's mother, Tammie McGuire, who lived about a quarter mile from the Holstons. Tammie agreed to check on Stacey and drove to the house. A few minutes later, she called Todd back and told him that she was at his house but that the door was locked. Todd authorized her to break in, and she did. The phone connection remained open. A few minutes later, Todd heard Tammie scream, "Oh, my God" followed by a loud noise. Then, as Todd later testified, "all of a sudden it was just quiet."

{¶ 17} By Lawson's account, he was in the main bedroom when he heard Tammie forcing her way into the house. He hid behind the bedroom door; when Tammie opened that door, he stepped out and shot her. Lawson dragged Tammie's body to the laundry area and threw a blanket over her. He then used her keys to move her truck behind the house.

{¶ 18} Meanwhile, Todd phoned Tammie's husband, Donald McGuire, and apprised him of the situation. Donald said he would go and check, and he walked to the house.

{¶ 19} According to Lawson, Donald initially tried to enter through the back door, but it was locked, so Donald went around to the locked front door and "rammed through." When Donald came in, Lawson shot him and dragged the body to D.H.’s bedroom.

{¶ 20} About 10 to 20 minutes later, Todd arrived home. When he came

179 N.E.3d 1223

through the front door, Lawson attacked him with a knife, stabbing him a number of times in the head, neck, and torso. Todd wrested the knife from Lawson and pinned him to the couch.

{¶ 21} Todd asked Lawson why he had attacked him. According to Lawson, he then replied, "I don't know, it was just a blind thing of anger." But Todd testified that Lawson had said, "There's been people breaking in out here, and I thought you was one of them." According to Todd, Lawson then "shook like he snapped out of something."

{¶ 22} Todd also asked Lawson where Stacey and the children were. Lawson said they were in the bedroom and were "okay." Todd testified that he then forcefully removed Lawson from the house. Lawson drove away in the truck belonging to the McGuires.

{¶ 23} Todd checked on B.H., who was unharmed. (According to Lawson, B.H. slept through at least the first three murders.) Todd then looked through the house. After finding the bodies of Tammie, Stacey, and Donald, he took B.H. and drove to the McGuires’ house, where he borrowed a cell phone from Tammie's brother and called 9-1-1.

{¶ 24} Lawson had planned to hide out in the woods, but he had left his backpack and shotgun behind in the Holstons’ house, so he drove to a store. With cash stolen from the Holstons, he bought new clothes to replace his bloodstained ones.

{¶ 25} While driving the truck, Lawson was pursued by police; he abandoned the truck and fled on foot. Eventually, he reached a wooded area, where he spent the next two nights. Lawson later said that after one "cold, cold night" in the woods, "I just didn't have no more flight in me." Nevertheless, he did not emerge from the woods until the morning of October 13, when he was apprehended. Detectives took him to the county prosecutor's office in Ironton, where he confessed to the four murders.

{¶ 26} Dr. Robert Shott, the Montgomery County deputy coroner, performed autopsies on all four victims. He testified...

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