Thursday, February 21, 2002

Snitch testimony and race baiting by prosecutors prove deadly

Published on: 2-21-2002
By Stephanie Dunlap

Dirty deals are often behind death sentences, according to Staughton Lynd

Critics refer to Hamilton County as "Little Texas" for its record of sending prisoners to Death Row.
That's why attorney Staughton Lynd was particularly eager to speak in Cincinnati about his study of the death sentences resulting from the 1993 Lucasville prison riot. Lynd, a movement historian, labor lawyer and longtime activist, presented "Who Killed Officer Vallandingham?" Feb. 13 at the University of Cincinnati.

The report documents miscarriages of justice in the trials of four men sentenced to die for the aggravated murder of Officer Robert Vallandingham during the uprising at the Southern Ohio Correctional Facility in Lucasville.

"I thought for a long time about telling this story in Cincinnati because Cincinnati is a place intimately associated with the death penalty," Lynd said.

Though Hamilton County holds 8 percent of the state's population, it claims 25 percent of the 200 men on death row, according to attorney Howard Tolley, a professor of political science at UC. Prosecutors won 10 of those convictions on the strength of cases built by suspects-turned-witnesses for the prosecution -- so-called "snitch" testimonies, he said.

Testify or die
That record points to a pattern, according to Lynd.
"I think that Cincinnati prosecutors have an M.O. and it is to seek death sentences on the basis of nothing but snitch testimony," he said.

Snitch testimony formed the backbone of the Lucasville trials, which were handled by special prosecutors from Hamilton County.

"That's how the prosecution got all the Lucasville convictions," Lynd said. "They were dependent on snitches."

The prosecution admitted as much in opening statements for one of the trials: "There was very little usable evidence ... We're not going to bring in fingerprints. We don't have any. We're not going to bring in footprints. We don't have any. We're not going to bring you blood samples. There isn't any that we were able to match."

Lynd used his training as a historian, restricting himself to public records of trial transcripts and sworn affidavits, to put together the story of what really happened when Vallandingham was killed.
He said what he found appalled him.

"It seems that Officer Vallandingham was murdered by a small group of prisoners who acted on their own initiative, led by the state's star witness, Anthony Lavelle," he said.

Lynd believes the state zeroed in on the negotiators and spokesmen for the prisoners during the riot. The Ohio State Highway Patrol began building the case against Jason Robb, Anthony Lavelle, George Skatzes, Carlos Sanders and James Were -- the so-called Lucasville Five -- from the questioning of the first stretcher-bound witness.

"As the queen in Alice in Wonderland said, 'First we have the verdict, then we have the trial.' That's how Ohio proceeded with these men," Lynd said. "Who among these men decided to snitch on the others and live, and who ended up with a death sentence, was not of particular concern."

It was Lavelle, perhaps nervous that courts would unearth the same compelling evidence gathered by Lynd -- fingering him as the murderer -- who turned state's evidence.

Prosecutors used the threat of execution as leverage. Lynd found testimony that Lavelle made his decision to cooperate with the state when a prosecutor told him, "You are either going to be my witness, or I'm going to try to kill you."

Lavelle did not want to die or spend his life in prison.

"He said he was going to tell them what they wanted to hear," a fellow inmate testified in one of the trials.
Therefore, no jury had an opportunity to evaluate the entirety of evidence pointing to Lavelle as the murderer, according to Lynd. Instead, the snitch got seven to 25 years.

Meanwhile, the other four men sit on Death Row largely because of his testimony, which Lynd found to be inconsistent across the four trials. In case-by-case examinations, Lynd's study casts more than reasonable doubt on all four convictions.

Lynd wonders if appellate judges read all of the 4,000-, 5,000- and 6,000-page transcripts of the trials. He said he doesn't dare hope they compared the transcripts to those of the other three trials.
The Ohio Supreme Court has upheld the Robb and Sanders convictions but reversed Were's conviction and remanded it for a new trial.

Lynd hopes his research will be of use to Were.

"You might say I am describing the witnesses who, if there is a new trial, Mr. Were's counsel might wish to call," Lynd said.

Slingshots against nukes
His study reveals blatant inequalities in the state's treatment of the prosecution and the defense. The state spent three times as much on the prosecution as on the defense and denied the defense access to an exhaustive database of data on crime witnesses, locations and events.

As Attorney Nikki Schwartz testified, "The prosecution has been provided with nuclear weaponry and the defense has been provided with slingshots."

Lynd alleged the prosecution cut deals with witnesses and told them what to say.
"Prosecutors are in a position to write letters to the parole board, to reduce charges and to cause new sentences to run concurrently with older judgments, in exchange for testimony that will help them to obtain convictions," he said.

The prosecution also biased the jury by playing the race card, emphasizing Robb and Skatzes' membership in the Aryan Brotherhood, according to Lynd.

"It portrayed whites as vicious racists, skinheads and Nazis and used this to prove there must have been a conspiracy to make them band together with the blacks they hated," he said.

Lynd examined the racial aspects of the uprising and subsequent trials in the essay "Black and White and Dead All Over: The Lucasville Insurrection" (see

Dan Cahill, who spent nine years at Lucasville between 1975 and 1990 and knows three of the "Lucasville Five," attended Lynd's speech. He said prisons have always polarized along racial lines. "It's just a way for people to organize," Cahill said.

Lynd reported the four defendants have stuck together after the trials. Now on Death Row at Mansfield Correctional Institution, they conducted two hunger strikes in opposition to what they perceived to be unfair and retaliatory punishment.

The first request, in a letter drafted by one of the black prisoners, was medical care for Skatzes, who is white.
"They've set an example of interracial solidarity that puts those of us on the outside to shame," Lynd said.

Cahill agreed.

"Strange as it may sound, I think they're doing more to fight against racism than a lot of people out here," he said.

Conditions at Lucasville don't appear to have improved much since the uprising. Lynd cited the continuing inadequacy of care for mentally ill prisoners and said two prisoners have committed suicide in the past year.
Lynd told the audience that Cincinnati City Council's resolution urging a moratorium on death sentences has political significance, if no legal consequence.

Lynd drew parallels between the Lucasville cases and the trial of John Byrd, who was executed Feb. 19 for a 1983 murder.

"As in Lucasville, there was almost no physical evidence," Lynd said.
Lynd said "snitch" testimony was the heart of the prosecution's case in Byrd's trial, just as in the Lucasville trials.

"We all wish there were one more thing we could do to save John Byrd's life," Lynd said.
What he could do, he decided, is tell the story of the Lucasville trials. ©