May 15, 2011
Killers Sammy Littleton II and Matthew Hoffman will die for their crimes in jail, but not by lethal injection.
That’s not because the heinousness of their crimes didn’t warrant the death penalty, but rather because prosecutors wanted something from each of them.
In Hoffman’s case, Knox County prosecutors needed the triple-murderer to lead them to the bodies of his victims. In Littleton’s case, prosecutors wanted to ease the families’ pain and honor their wish to spare themselves the time and anguish of a trial and appeals.
Both murderers agreed to plead guilty and serve life in prison without the possibility of parole. In exchange, they are allowed to live.
The death penalty in Ohio is more than just a form of punishment – it’s a tool prosecutors rely on to get information, avoid lengthy and costly trials and to provide quick justice to families in pain. In contrast, pursuing a death-penalty case can mean decades before an execution date even is set.
Knox County Prosecutor John Thatcher said that if the death penalty hadn’t been an option, he doesn’t think the Hoffman case would have been settled without a trial. Defense attorneys likely would have wanted a shot at parole, and Thatcher said he never would have agreed.
Hoffman, he said, was the worst of the worst. “Obviously, he can never be let out of prison.”
But even when they get something in return, it’s an agonizing decision for the families. Larry Maynard recalled his first reaction when prosecutors told him they were considering a plea deal for Hoffman to locate his son’s remains: “Hell no.”
But after some painful reflection, he decided that not being able to bury 11-year-old Kody wasn’t worth the eye-for-an-eye punishment he wanted in his gut. The other families agreed, and Kody; his mother, Tina Herrmann; and family friend Stephanie Sprang were found dismembered in a hollow tree.
“In order for us to have some sort of closure … it’s something that I had to do,” he said.
In Littleton’s crime, the families’ desire to end the case facilitated the swift justice once he agreed to plead guilty.
Her family didn’t want victim Tiffany Brown’s young boys to have to deal with this case as they grew up, Logan County Prosecutor Eric Stewart said. And older members of the families of Littleton’s other victims, Dick and Gladis Russell, wanted to live to see the case’s conclusion.
Their wishes were Stewart’s motivation: “He certainly deserved the death penalty.”
Gregory Meyers, chief trial counsel at the Ohio Public Defender’s Office, acknowledged that the cases of Littleton and Hoffman can seem perplexing: If not these two killers, who does deserve the death penalty?
“Looking at those kind of cases makes anybody wonder, even a guy like me who does this for a living, why’d they let the guy off?” Meyers said. “But life without parole in Ohio means exactly that.”
Brent Yager, prosecutor in Marion County, said he believes he has a duty to seek the death penalty if the crime fits the requirements. But circumstances can change, he conceded.
Sometimes, the threat of death is indeed a bargaining chip, a means to a conviction. Other times, more information simply comes to light.
“As you get closer to trial, a lot can happen,” he said. “You learn more about the case, you learn more about the defendant and, probably most importantly, you get to know the victim’s family and you learn their wishes.”
Sometimes, cost is a factor for poor, rural counties. Yager said he understands that but wishes it wasn’t so.
“Cost should carry the least amount of weight when choosing whether to seek a death sentence,” he said. “And, in my mind, the wishes of the family should be given the most.”
Citing the cost and racial imbalance, two Democratic state lawmakers want to abolish the death penalty in Ohio. Reps. Ted Celeste, of Grandview Heights, and Nickie Antonio, of Lakewood in the Cleveland area, have introduced the legislation. It likely is going nowhere in the Republican-dominated House.
Still, prosecutors worry about losing the option and cite the Hoffman and Littleton cases as evidence of its usefulness.
Defense attorneys counter that prosecutorial leverage is no justification for the death penalty.
“If we look at the death penalty as something there to extract guilty pleas more readily, I think that’s a hell of a bad reason to have the death penalty,” said Marc Triplett, who represented Littleton.
Today, prosecutors also have the option of seeking life with no possibility of parole without filing a death-penalty indictment. Before 2005, that wasn’t the case. The maximum sentence for an aggravated-murder case allowed parole after 30 years.
Since 2006, the first full year that life without parole was an option, there have been 19 death-penalty sentences in Ohio. In the previous five years, there was double that.
Having the life option has led to more pretrial pleas, attorneys say. And even when a death-penalty indictment is handed up, defense attorneys know many prosecutors would rather avoid the expensive, time-consuming trial.
“I imagine in a good number of the cases that are capitally indicted, the prosecutor will be willing to take the death penalty off the table if you can get a plea to a life sentence,” Triplett said.
For many prosecutors and families, life for murderers, in exchange for avoiding more pain and suffering, is something they can stomach. But if things were a little bit different, if his son’s body had been found without the help of his killer, Maynard said his decision would be much different.
“I’d say, ‘Let him fry,’” Maynard said. “I’d do whatever I had to do. I’d go to however many boards I had to go to, to make sure he got the death penalty.”