State v. Thomas

Citation2002 Ohio 6624,779 N.E.2d 1017,97 Ohio St.3d 309
Decision Date11 December 2002
Docket NumberNo. 1999-1511.,1999-1511.
PartiesThe STATE of Ohio, Appellee, v. THOMAS, Appellant.
CourtUnited States State Supreme Court of Ohio

Jeffrey M. Gamso and Spiros P. Cocoves, Toledo, for appellant.


{¶ 1} In this appeal, defendant-appellant, William A. Thomas, raises fifteen propositions of law. Finding none meritorious, we affirm his convictions. We have independently weighed the aggravating circumstances against the mitigating factors and compared his sentence with those imposed in similar cases, as R.C. 2929.05(A) requires. As a result, we affirm defendant's convictions and sentence of death.

{¶ 2} Defendant broke into Florence "Molly" Newbirt's home in Toledo, Ohio, during the early morning of November 23, 1994. The defendant robbed and murdered 87-year-old Newbirt by repeatedly striking her with a hammer on the head. Defendant stole a television set from Newbirt's bedroom, fled, and attempted to sell the television to an acquaintance later that morning. The defendant was convicted of aggravated murder, aggravated burglary, and aggravated robbery, and sentenced to death.

{¶ 3} To establish defendant's guilt, the state introduced defendant's hat, found at the crime scene; defendant's shoe, containing a shard of glass from Newbirt's basement window; forensic testimony that a bloody shoeprint on Newbirt's bedroom pillowcase was of defendant's shoe; testimony that the murder weapon (i.e., the hammer) came from defendant's home; and testimony that defendant attempted to sell Newbirt's television to James Lightner on the morning of November 23.

State's Case

{¶ 4} On the evening of November 22, 1994, defendant attended a birthday party for his niece at his home at 239 Hanover Street in Toledo. Defendant lived at this address with his sister and Wesley Thomas, his nephew.

{¶ 5} During the party, defendant asked four or five people for money, but no one loaned him any. Defendant owed Wesley $10 and told Wesley he could not pay him. They argued but then resumed drinking. Defendant had a black baseball cap, which portrayed an Uzi machine gun and a number 187 logo, in his hand at the party. Wesley had previously owned the hat, and the defendant sometimes wore it. The number 187 represented the California Penal Code number for homicide.

{¶ 6} As the evening progressed, defendant was in a "pretty bad mood," "mad" and "drunk," according to Wesley. Defendant left the party around midnight and did not return.

{¶ 7} Newbirt lived a few houses away at 223 Hanover Street. Sandra Connolly lived behind Newbirt's residence. Between 3:00 a.m. and 4:00 a.m. on November 23, Connolly and her daughter, Deborah Connolly, were leaving for work when they noticed that Newbirt's back door was open and her back door lights were not on. They suspected that something was wrong, and after arriving at work, Deborah notified the police by calling 911.

{¶ 8} Toledo police officers responding to the 911 call entered Newbirt's home and found her battered body lying under a mattress in the bedroom. Newbirt was still alive and was rushed to the hospital. Police secured the crime scene and began collecting evidence from Newbirt's home.

{¶ 9} The police found a smashed basement window and glass on the basement floor, indicating that the culprit had entered Newbirt's home through the basement. Defendant's ball cap (with the Uzi machine gun and the number 187 logo) was found on the steps by the broken window. Footprints on the lower portion of the basement door and a broken doorjamb suggested that the assailant had entered the main part of the house through the forced basement door.

{¶ 10} Police found a clump of the victim's white hair lying near a phone receiver that had been ripped from the wall, which indicated a struggle in the kitchen and dining-room area. However, blood spatters on the bedroom walls and closet doors suggested that Newbirt was murdered in her bedroom.

{¶ 11} The murder weapon was a claw hammer found on the bedroom floor near the victim's body. The police also collected a pillowcase from under the bedroom desk that appeared to have a partial footprint on it. An expert concluded that defendant's Nike tennis shoe made the bloody footprint on Newbirt's pillowcase. Experts also established that DNA from blood on the hammer matched DNA from blood removed from the pillowcase.

{¶ 12} The police concluded that Newbirt had been robbed, since the contents of her purse had been dumped. Police also determined that a television set had been stolen from her bedroom on the basis of an empty table top where dust silhouetted a clean rectangular shape, a nearby A/B switch and a TV cable, and a TV owner's manual in the bedroom.

{¶ 13} The assailant appeared to have fled from Newbirt's residence through the back door. The back door was open, and police collected a women's purple coat lying on the ground between the rear door and the back fence.

{¶ 14} At approximately 2:30 a.m. that night, before the crime was discovered, defendant went to Lightner's residence and knocked loudly on his door. Lightner lived at 1654 Campbell Street, which was several blocks from the victim's residence. After Lightner let the defendant in, Lightner noticed that the lower parts of defendant's pants were covered with blood. Defendant said "he had gotten into a fight with a guy." However, Lightner did not notice any marks on defendant's hands or face indicating that he had actually been in a fight. Defendant then offered to sell Lightner a television set. Defendant said that "him and some guy stole it and they got to fighting over it." Lightner refused to buy the television, and the defendant left. Shortly thereafter, defendant returned to Lightner's home, asked for a ride to another location, and Lightner agreed.

{¶ 15} Defendant took the television set with him in Lightner's car. Upon arriving at Junction and Buckingham, defendant and an unidentified man took the television set out of Lightner's car, put it into the trunk of another car, and drove off. At trial, Lightner agreed that that television looked like the one pictured on the owner's manual found in Newbirt's bedroom.

{¶ 16} At the hospital, Newbirt's family told police about a neighborhood man who performed odd jobs for the victim and attempted to borrow money from her. Further investigation led police to defendant's home, where they talked to Wesley. He told police that defendant had attended a party there the night before and had left the house around midnight. Wesley identified distinctive markings on the hammer, noting that it came from a drawer in their house. Wesley described the clothes defendant had been wearing, including the baseball cap with the Uzi machine gun and the number 187 logo. He also identified the hat when police showed it to him.

{¶ 17} Officer Thomas Ross interviewed defendant following his arrest two days later on November 25, 1994. According to the defendant, he stayed at the Cherry Street Mission, a local homeless shelter, the day of the crime. Defendant told police that he had turned in his "old and soiled" clothes, and "the people at the mission gave him new clothes." Ross seized defendant's Nike tennis shoes after noticing blood on one of them. A piece of glass was also found embedded inside the shoe. At trial, an expert concluded that there was a "very strong probability" that the glass fragment came from Newbirt's basement window based on its refractive index.

{¶ 18} When asked how blood got on his shoes, defendant said, "[M]y mind went blank, I don't remember." Defendant told Ross that he knew the victim because "she lived a few doors down from him, and that he on occasion had raked some leaves for her." When asked if he broke into her home and attacked her, defendant said, "[I]f I did something like that, I don't remember. I'm just sick from some bad drugs I got that night."

{¶ 19} Defendant remembered drinking beer at the party on November 22, but "everything went blank after that." Defendant next remembered "waking up in a vacant house near Junction and Nebraska and walking down to the Cherry Street Mission and being admitted there." Defendant said that he did not recall carrying a television set that night or trying to sell a television set to Lightner. When asked again about attacking Newbirt, defendant said, "This isn't me William. Doesn't seem I'd do anything like that."

{¶ 20} Newbirt remained hospitalized from the attack for a month, until she died on December 23, 1994. Newbirt had suffered approximately 15 to 20 injuries to her head and face. Several circular depressed skull fractures showed that a hammer or a similar object caused Newbirt's injuries. The deputy coroner concluded that Newbirt died as a "result of respiratory complications * * * due to craniocerebral injuries that she sustained in a beating."

{¶ 21} At trial, the defense elected not to present any evidence.

Trial Result

{¶ 22} The three judge panel convicted defendant as charged. Count I, charging defendant with aggravated murder, included a capital specification for murder during an aggravated burglary and a second capital specification for murder during an aggravated robbery. Counts II and III separately charged defendant with aggravated burglary and aggravated robbery.

{¶ 23} The three judge panel sentenced defendant to death on Count I. Defendant was also sentenced to 10 to 25 years in prison on Count II and 10 to 25 years in prison on Count III.

{¶ 24} The court of appeals affirmed the convictions and death sentence.

Pretrial Issues

{¶ 25} Jury waiver. In proposition of law III, defendant claims that his waiver of a jury trial was insufficient because the record does not affirmatively establish that he was fully aware of all the effects of his waiver. Defend...

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