James Worley has been recommended for death in the abduction and murder case of Metamora resident Sierah Joughin, but his right to appeal his sentence could prolong a death row stay.
The jury in the Joughin murder trial deliberated nearly six hours April 4 before unanimously recommending that Worley receive the death penalty. He will be formally sentenced by Fulton County Common Pleas Court Judge Jeffrey Robinson on April 18 at 1 p.m.
He was convicted March 27 of 17 counts in the Joughin case, including abduction and aggravated murder. Joughin disappeared during an evening bicycle ride on July 19, 2016. Her bound body was unearthed from a grave in a cornfield on County Road 7 three days later.
Following the jury’s recommendation, Judge Robinson advised Worley, 59, of his right to appeal the sentence within 45 days from the date it’s given. He was handcuffed, shackled, and led from the courtroom. He will await the final hearing at the Corrections Center of Northwest Ohio in Stryker.
Should the jury’s recommendation stand, Worley would be incarcerated at the Chillicothe Correctional Institution. His eventual execution would take place at the Southern Ohio Correctional Facility in Lucasville, Ohio.
However, the appeals process through both state and federal courts can be lengthy, even though the Ohio Supreme Court enforced the death penalty by eliminating reviews of capital cases by courts of appeals.
“The Ohio Supreme Court essentially cut out the middle man years ago,” Delta attorney Gregory Van Gunten said. “You could see how that would cut down the amount of time that would otherwise be involved in the proceedings.”
Van Gunten, who has no involvement with or connection to Worley’s case, said if his attorneys choose to appeal his sentence it would previously have gone to the Sixth District Court of Appeals in Toledo. With that step gone, their argument would go directly to the Ohio Supreme Court.
According to the Ohio State Bar Association (OSBA), Worley is entitled to a direct appeal with the state. If that decision proves unfavorable, his attorneys can file a second appeal claiming the direct appeal attorneys performed poorly. If Worley wins his appeal a new trial or sentencing hearing can be ordered.
Should the state court uphold Worley’s sentence, his attorneys can appeal to federal courts up to, and including, the U.S. Supreme Court.
According to the OSBA, the cases are extremely involved and can take long periods of time to get through the individual courts.
Van Gunten also said what could be two probable causes for appeal in the Worley case could prove to be weak and ineffective.
He said if Worley were to argue ineffective assistance – that his defense counsel was inefficient – “that is a losing proposition.”
State attorneys must be qualified and authorized by the Ohio Supreme Court to take on capital murder cases, Van Gunten said. Worley would have to prove his defense team did not employ a strategy in their defense efforts.
“It’s very hard to demonstrate that your counsel was ineffective, and that is especially so in death penalty cases,” he said.
Van Gunten said if evidence in a case is overwhelmingly against the defendant “you don’t necessarily want your lawyer to browbeat the witnesses. Counsel in death penalty cases can blow their credibility by putting on a strong but foolish defense. You have to walk a thin line out there, and I think that’s probably what Worley’s defense did.”
Worley’s attorneys would also face difficulty arguing that he didn’t receive a fair trial in Fulton County, where the kidnapping and murder occurred.
“Once you accept the jury and find no other reason to lose them for cause, you’ve already lost that argument,” Van Gunten said.
The OSBA reports that, once all appeals are exhausted, and unless the defendant can produce new evidence for another appeal, the state will usually ask the Supreme Court to set an execution date. Beyond that, the process of requesting clemency can begin.
According to the Death Penalty Information Center in Washington, D.C., 26 executions, all by lethal injection, are scheduled in Ohio through April 2022. As of July 2017, 144 people sit on death row in the Buckeye State.
Reach David J. Coehrs at 419-335-2010.