State v. Stephen A. Vrabel

Decision Date02 March 2000
Docket Number00-LW-0970,95 CA 221
CourtOhio Court of Appeals

Criminal Appeal from Mahoning County Court of Common Pleas, Mahoning County, Ohio, Case No. 94 CR 789.

For Plaintiff-Appellee: Attorney Luwayne Annos, Special Counsel 160 High Street, N.W., Warren, Ohio 44481.

For Defendant-Appellant: Attorney Mary Jane Stephens, Attorney John B. Juhasz, 7330 Market Street, Youngstown, Ohio 44512.

Hon Cheryl L. Waite, Hon. Joseph J. Vukovich, Hon. Gene Donofrio.



This case presents the timely appeal of the decision of the Mahoning County Court of Common Pleas convicting Appellant Stephen Vrable, of two counts of aggravated murder with firearm specifications and sentencing him to death. For the following reasons, the decision of the trial court is affirmed.

For reasons which will become readily apparent, it is necessary to provide a comprehensive recitation of the facts and procedural history of this case. On April 5, 1989, Michael Aey, victim Susan Clemente's landlord and brother-in-law, went to the apartment occupied by Appellant, Ms. Clemente and their three-year-old daughter, Lisa Clemente, because the monthly rent had not been paid. Neither Ms. Clemente nor Lisa had been seen by family members for approximately four weeks. (Trial Transcript, pp. 184187). When no one answered the door, Mr. Aey went into the apartment, checking to see whether the three had moved out. He detected the strong smell of cleaning solvents. Upon checking the refrigerator for food, he found the body of Susan Clemente, which had been wrapped in a blanket and stuffed inside. (Trial Transcript, pp.188-190). As there was no telephone in the apartment, Mr. Aey went home, informed his wife (Susan's sister) about his discovery and then went to the Struthers Police Department. He returned to the apartment with two officers who subsequently discovered the wrapped body of Lisa Clemente in the freezer portion of the refrigerator. (Trial Transcript, pp. 190-191).

Dr. Paul Weiss performed the autopsies and determined that Susan suffered a nonfatal gunshot wound to the face and a fatal shot to the back of her head. (Trial Transcript, pp. 306-308, 312). Dr. Weiss also concluded that Lisa was shot in her left cheek and noted an exit wound in the back of her head. (Trial Transcript, p. 318).

On April 6, 1989, Appellant appeared at the Parma, Ohio Police Department in the company of a priest. Appellant agreed to make a statement to a detective. After being advised of his Miranda rights, Appellant made an oral and written statement confessing to the crimes. He admitted that on March 3, 1989, he had been drinking beer and was toying with his recently purchased gun. As Ms. Clemente walked past, he shot her, then he shot her again so she wouldn't suffer. Because Lisa was "freaking out" and Appellant assumed that he was going to prison and realized that Lisa no longer had a mother, he decided to shoot her as well. (Suppression Hearing, July 13, 1995, State's Exhibit 1).

After the killings, Appellant wandered from motel to motel in Liberty Township, Ohio, Wheeling, West Virginia and Columbus, Ohio. He eventually returned to the apartment, placed the bodies in the refrigerator/freezer and attempted to clean the blood stains from the floor. on the morning of April 6, 1989, after staying at an Austintown Township motel, he awoke to the news that the bodies were discovered. He then drove to Parma, Ohio, talked to a priest and drove separately with the priest to the police station where he confessed to the crimes. (Trial Transcript, pp. 271, 566-567).

On April 10, 1989, Appellant was indicted for the aggravated murders of Susan and Lisa Clemente under Mahoning County Court of Common Pleas case number 89 CR 202. Each count in the indictment included a firearm specification pursuant to R.C. §2941.143, as well as a death penalty specification pursuant to R.C. §2929.04(A)(4), alleging that the murders occurred as part of a course of conduct involving the purposeful killing of or attempt to kill two or more persons.

On May 11, 1989, Appellant's appointed counsel filed a "Motion to Determine Competency", asserting that Appellant's present mental condition rendered him incapable of understanding the nature and objective of the legal proceedings against him or of meaningfully assisting in his own defense. Pursuant to this request, the trial court appointed Dr. A. James Giannini to examine Appellant as to his competency to stand trial and his sanity at the time of the commission of the offense. The record reflects that Dr. Giannini was unable to evaluate Appellant but that his associate, Dr. Brian Sullivan, did conduct an examination (Motion to Withdraw Motion to Determine Competency, Dec. 28, 1989). The conclusion of Dr. Sullivan in his August 7, 1989 report was that Appellant:

"... definitely gives evidence for chemical dependence and I am sure alcohol and drugs helped precipitate the alleged killings. Alcohol and drugs diminished his capacity at the time, but I find no evidence of any other (sic) I feel that he is competent to stand trial (sic). He has the ability to understand the charges against him and assist in his own defense."

After receipt of Dr. Sullivan's report, defense counsel arranged for an independent evaluation by Edwin E. Wagner, Ph.D., which took place on August 24, 1989 at the Mahoning County Jail. Although Dr. Wagner was to evaluate Appellant for a determination as to Appellant's competency to stand trial, his report never specifically addressed this issue with any legal certainty. He did opine, however, that Appellant was, "able to take part in his own defense." (September 5, 1989 Report, p.4). Due to the inconclusive nature of Dr. Wagner's report and the seemingly contradictory report submitted by Dr. Sullivan, the State of Ohio filed a motion under R.C. §2945.39(A), which allows evaluation of a defendant's mental condition by no more than three examiners. The State sought the appointment of Nancy Huntsman, a psychologist, to conduct the examination. On January 11, 1990, the motion was sustained.

After clinical interviews lasting approximately three hours, review of the reports prepared by Dr. Sullivan and Dr. Wagner, review of social histories prepared by staff members of the Forensic Psychiatric Center of District Eleven, Inc. and Dr. Giannini's office, as well as a review of police reports and newspaper articles, Dr. Huntsman concluded as follows:

"... Mr. Vrabel, at present, is not competent to stand trial. He does know the charges against him. He does appreciate their seriousness. He does know the fundamental values underlying the criminal justice system. He knows the roles of the various individuals involved in trial. He is unable to control his own behavior adequately to participate in trial.
"However, Mr. Vrabel is unwillingly and is, at present, unable to work cooperatively with his attorneys in his own defense. In my opinion, this is true for two delusional reasons. First, Mr. Vrabel believes that his attorneys are part of a larger conspiracy. Because of this, he is unwilling to share information relevant to his defense completely. To some extent, this results from an apparently rational motive to be found guilty and executed because of the guilt he feels. However, it is also fostered by a belief that, once he dies, he will be reunited with his victims.
"In my opinion, these are delusional beliefs which indicate the presence, of a minimum, of a delusional disorder, and, quite possibly, the presence of paranoid schizophrenia.
"Given the presence of a significant mental illness and the fact that this mental illness makes him unable to work effectively with his attorneys in his own defense, it is my opinion, then, that Mr. Vrabel is not competent to stand trial.
"It is my opinion, also, that he can be restored to competency within a year, if treated."

(Sanity evaluation of Nancy J. Huntsman, Ph.D., dated 3-20-90).

On April 10, 1990 the trial court issued an order, based on the reports of Gerald L. Heinbaugh (social history) and Nancy Huntsman (sanity evaluation) and found as follows:


The Defendant is presently not capable of understanding the nature and objective of the proceedings against him and is not capable of presently assisting in his defense;

2. The Defendant is mentally ill;


There is a substantial probability that the Defendant will become capable of understanding the nature and objective of the proceedings against him and capable of assisting in his defense within one (1) year if he is provided with a course of treatment

Pursuant to the above findings, Appellant was committed to the Timothy B. Moritz Forensic Center for treatment. On September 18, 1990, the trial court, after review of a psychiatrist's report from the Moritz Center, ordered continued treatment at that facility after finding that Appellant understood the proceedings against him but still could not adequately assist in his own defense. On March 20, 1991, the trial court again ordered continued treatment at the Moritz Center as there was a substantial probability that competency would be restored within a reasonable period of time.

Finally, on July 2, 1991, a successor trial judge, at a continued commitment hearing, found that upon consideration of all the evidence, there was not a substantial probability that the Appellant would be restored to competency within one year with continued treatment. The court ordered that an affidavit be filed pursuant to R.C. §5122.01 alleging that Appellant was mentally ill and subject to the jurisdiction of the probate court. The indictment was subsequently dismissed. (Transc...

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