During an emotional hearing Wednesday in which James Worley insisted on his innocence, Fulton County Common Pleas Court Judge Jeffrey Robinson upheld the recommendation by the jury in the Sierah Joughin murder trial that the defendant be put to death.
His pronouncement followed a rambling digressive 45-minute statement by Worley in which he tried to convince members of the court gallery of his innocence and choked with emotion when discussing Joughin’s death.
In a session streamed live for television, Robinson set an execution date of June 3, 2019, a date which likely will change during Worley’s appeals process. The judge also sentenced Worley to a total of 23 1/2 consecutive years for his other convictions in the case, including kidnapping, felonious assault, possession of criminal tools, tampering with evidence, and having weapons while under disability.
In a statement at the close of the 3 1/2 hour hearing, Judge Robinson told Worley, “If I thought there was a snowball’s chance in hell that you were innocent, you’d be looking at life.”
Robinson told the court earlier he had considered all mitigating evidence and mitigating factors discussed during the trial, including Worley’s troubled childhood and his list of mental disorders. He said the specific aggravated circumstances the defendant was found guilty of outweighed all of the mitigating factors.
“The mitigating factors pale in comparison to the specific aggravated circumstances found by the jury. The court therefore accepts the recommendation of the jury,” he said.
At the start of the hearing, lead defense attorney Mark Berling told the court, “I cannot argue with the result (the jury) found.” But he did ask Judge Robinson to reconsider the evidence showing that Worley suffers symptoms of four of 10 recognized personality disorders.
“We know his emotional response is not appropriate, and odd to say the least…Taken as a whole…Mr. Worley is one damaged individual,” Berling said.
He especially targeted Worley’s narcissistic personality disorder. Calling it “off the charts,” Berling continued, “He thinks he’s smarter than everybody else, thinks he’s special and unique.”
Berling said, due to Worley’s questionable health, giving the defendant the death penalty “is an exercise in futility.” He encouraged Judge Robinson to consider a life sentence, saying, “Mercy is what makes us human.”
In a brief rebuttal, Fulton County Prosecutor Scott Haselman reminded the court that many people suffer from personality disorders and don’t commit the crimes Worley did. “He knew kidnapping someone and murdering them was wrong,” he said.
Following a short recess, and contrary to his defense team’s advice, Worley directly faced the court gallery and launched into a long and rambling recounting of his alibi, offering an alternate theory regarding Joughin’s kidnap and murder.
“The bottom line is, there are things that point to me being innocent, even though I have been found guilty,” he said at one point.
Worley posited that another man kidnapped Joughin the evening of July 19, 2016, used the motorcycle helmet he claimed he lost that night to strike her on the head, and broke into Worley’s barn to abuse her. He said, although Joughin’s DNA was found in the barn, he believes her killer walked her to the gravesite and murdered her there.
Speaking directly to Major Matt Smithmyer of the Fulton County Sheriff’s Office, Worley said, “Find him. That should be your number one priority. Find that man.”
He focused on human feces found at Joughin’s gravesite on County Road 7, saying it should have been examined for DNA so the real killer could be identified.
“If that human feces would have been collected and processed…that would have definitely changed the map in this,” Worley said. “But we’ll never know now because they failed to collect it and analyze it. That’s not my fault, but I have to live with the end results.”
Midway through Worley’s statement a large portion of Joughin’s family members and supporters angrily stood and left the courtroom. Other Joughin supporters occasionally trickled out as Worley continued to speak.
He criticized Judge Robinson’s decision to deny his request for a news conference even as the jury deliberated his guilt. He also said Robin Gardner, whom he was imprisoned for attacking in 1990, lied to investigators about wounds she accused him of inflicting upon her.
Characterizing himself as a devoted caregiver to his elderly mother and a guardian to his mentally ill brother, Worley said, “At the end of the day, I am not responsible for Sierah’s death. I’m not the guy who did this…I just have to pray that I will be vindicated for this.”
In closing, Worley said Joughin’s death will continue to wound Joughin’s family. His voice choking, he added emotionally, “I believe Sierah goes on. She may have been murdered but she goes on.”
After Haselman read impact statements from several members of Joughin’s extended family, her mother, Sheila Vaculik, took the stand. Her voice occasionally breaking with emotion, she spoke of Joughin’s accomplishments in life. They included a maintained 3.8 grade point average as a University of Toledo student, volunteer work with the Boys and Girls Clubs of America, and a position with the National Society for Collegiate Scholars.
“These experiences and opportunities were very important to her, and she consumed as much as she could, but nothing was as important as her family,” Vaculik said. “A 20-year-old college student with a busy social life and a work life neededa priority to spend time with her younger brother and sister, cousins, aunts, and uncles.”
As family members and other gallery members wept silently, Vaculik addressed Worley. “For me, the death penalty is what he deserves. Sierah’s life was worth far more than the 20 years she was able to live,” she said.
Following the hearing, Haselman thanked law enforcement agencies involved in the case, and also community members, who he said found critical evidence in the case during their involvement.
“Though the legal system provided as much justice as it can, I acknowledge and recognize that this trial, this verdict, can never fill the hole left in the family by Sierah’s death,” he said. “She was by all accounts a wonderful young woman whose life was ended far too early. It was a brutal, vicious crime, it was a horrific and terrible thing, and I can only hope and pray that this community never has to go through a similar case ever again.”
Speaking for Joughin’s family, her uncle Howard Ice mentioned that Sierah’s Law, legislation proposed to establish a centralized violent offender’s data base for law enforcement, passed markedly in the Ohio Senate on April 11.
Ice said Joughin enjoyed Halloween and often dressed like a superhero.
“In real life, Sierah really was that superhero, because she took on a killer,” he said. “In the end, Sierah won the battle of good versus evil, and we believe her sacrifice has saved other lives to come.”
Reach David J. Coehrs at 419-335-2010.