Re-examining the Lucasville Uprising, Essay 7
By Staughton Lynd
Note: This is Essay 7 in the series I have been writing on “Re-Examining Lucasville.” Two persons, one an experienced journalist and the other a prisoner at Lucasville in April 1993, have said the same thing. They believe the main idea that should tie our thoughts together is: THEY DON’T KNOW WHO DID IT!
That is, five men have been sentenced to death for murdering ten victims during the occupation of L-block, but the authorities (the State of Ohio, the Lucasville Special Prosecutor, the several Assistant Prosecutors, and the Ohio State Highway Patrol) do not know who actually committed the homicides.
Instead, the authorities have gone after the men who they believe were “leaders” of the eleven-day occupation of L-block. They have been able to get away with their claims because of the Ohio doctrine of “complicity,” which allows courts to sentence people to death if they were present at the scene of criminal conduct or were otherwise involved.
It was the prosecution’s burden to convince juries, beyond a reasonable doubt, that the Five should be found guilty of the murders that took place during the rebellion. Much has been said about the homicides in previous essays. Essays still to come will examine in very great detail how I believe the State constructed a false explanation of the murder that most concerned the public: the murder of hostage officer Robert Vallandingham. For now, I shall gather scattered references to the several homicides from the different essays, and show that the State either did not know who did the killings, or knew, but needed the actual killer as a witness and so blamed someone else.
Who Did the Murders?
Here is a summary of the State’s case concerning the different murders for which the Five have been convicted, and why these narratives should not be believed because the State does not really know who did the killing.
The Deaths of Depina, Svette, Vitale, Staiano and Weaver. The first fatalities were among prisoners who had been placed in cells in L-block for their own protection because they might be thought to be “snitches.”
How permission to carry out these killings was obtained from Muslims in positions of authority remains a mystery.
Stacey Gordon testified in various trials that he was one of three Muslims who had planned the occupation, and that he was a “security amir” with particular responsibility for L-6.
Yet as the “death squad” went from cell to cell in L-6, dragging out men imprisoned there and ruthlessly killing them, Gordon, according to his own testimony, watched from the upper tier of the pod without interfering.
Keith LaMar was tried and convicted as leader of the death squad. But there is reason to believe that Gordon himself may have played that role. Muslims Leroy Elmore and Edward Julious have stated in affidavits that they saw Gordon enter L-6 at the head of a group of masked and armed men; demand that a prisoner who was operating the console (the electronic mechanism that opened and closed cell doors) open the cells where supposed snitches had been confined; and threaten the man at the console that he would be harmed himself if he did not comply. Tony Taylor, a prosecution witness, testified that Gordon went down the corridor of L-6 from cell to cell with other members of the death squad. James Edinbaugh, who witnessed the killings but whose testimony was withheld from defense counsel, said that he witnessed the murders and that LaMar didn’t do anything.
Weaver was killed later. Prisoners who stayed on the yard after the uprising began, or who returned to the yard after briefly entering L-block to check on their property, were ordered into K-block. There they were stripped naked and confined ten men to a cell. Under these conditions, someone or some ones in one of the K-block cells strangled prisoner Dennis Weaver.
The prosecution ascribed Weaver’s death to Keith LaMar. But the prosecution withheld from LaMar’s defense counsel the summaries of interviews with other men in the cell that the interviewing officers entered into the prosecution’s computer database. The defense has had no opportunity to examine how agents of the State may have induced prisoners to shape their trial testimony. There is a strong possibility that LaMar was singled out because he tried to persuade everyone in the cell not to cooperate with Highway Patrol interviewers.
The Death of Earl Elder
George Skatzes was found guilty of the murder of prisoner Earl Elder, and sentenced to death, for allegedly directing Rodger Snodgrass to enter cell L-6-60 where Elder was confined and stab him to death. Both Snodgrass and another prosecution witness, Timothy Williams, testified that the weapon Snodgrass carried resembled an ice pick and made a small, round hole. However, the medical examiner (Dr. Larry Tate) said that the fatal blows were struck by an instrument with a wide blade; a small piece of glass was found in the lethal wounds; and prisoner Eric Girdy later came forward to say that he had helped to kill Elder using a weapon made from a piece of broken glass in one of the officers’ restrooms. Girdy also stated under oath that Skatzes was not present and had nothing to do with Elder’s death.
Although Girdy was indicted and found guilty of Elder’s murder, prosecutors have made no attempt to vacate this portion of Skatzes’ sentence.
The Death of Officer Vallandingham
There is general agreement that Officer Vallandingham was murdered by prisoners in pod L-6 on the morning of April 15. Who were these murderers?
On January 18, 1996, prisoner Alvin Jones (a.k.a. Mosi Paki) was tried before a prison administrative body known as a Rules Infraction Board for being one of two men who killed Officer Vallandingham. Jones was found guilty. Sergeant Howard Hudson, the chief investigator of the Lucasville murders for the State, signed a summary of his own witness testimony to the R.I.B. including the statement: “[Kenneth] Law took himself out of act & replaced himself with inmate Darnell Alexander.” Thus, as of 1996, the State identified Officer Vallandingham’s hands-on killers as Alvin Jones and Kenneth Law.
On February 24, 2004, however, Chief Lucasville Prosecutor Mark Piepmeier and Assistant Prosecutor William Breyer filed a “Motion to Dismiss Defendant’s Petition to Vacate” in the Skatzes case wherein they outlined a theory that Carlos Sanders had ordered James Were to supervise the killing of Officer Vallandingham, and stated on page 26 of the brief that “Inmates Law and Allen were the other two participants.” “Allen” was Cecil Allen, another Lucasville defendant.
Thus, the State of Ohio has identified four different men–Alvin Jones, Kenneth Law, Cecil Allen, and (in place of Law) Darnell Alexander–as possible candidates for the two men who killed Officer Vallandingham.
In 2010, documentary filmmaker Derrick Jones interviewed Daniel Hogan, who prosecuted Jason Robb and Skatzes and is now a state court judge. Hogan told Jones on tape:
“I don’t know that we will ever know who hands-on killed the Corrections Officer, Vallandingham.”
Later Mr. Jones asked former prosecutor Hogan: “When it comes to Officer Vallandingham, who killed him?”
and Mr. Hogan replied: “I don’t know. And I don’t think we’ll ever know.”
Finally, it must be emphasized that Ohio law requires that in a homicide case there must be medical evidence as to how the victim died and what caused the death. As a result, the only truly objective evidence in the trials was the evidence of medical examiners. The testimony of several different medical examiners repeatedly clashed with the prosecution’s narratives of the murders.
The medical examiner who testified in the trials of Jason Robb, George Skatzes and Siddique Abdullah Hasan (formerly Carlos Sanders) for the murder of Officer Vallandingham was Dr. Patrick Fardal, chief forensic pathologist and deputy coroner for Franklin County. In the Robb trial, the prosecution offered informant testimony that the men who killed Officer Vallandingham stood on an object like a metal weight bar and rocked back and forth on his neck, crushing the trachea. Dr. Fardal testified that there was “no injury to the voice box or the trachea” and that “Mr. Vallandingham died solely and exclusively as a result of ligature strangulation.” State v. Robb, Tr. at 4433, 4442.
Undaunted, the prosecution presented the same lurid testimony about a weight bar in Hasan’s trial a year later. Dr. Fardal once again stated under oath that the cause of death was ligature strangulation, that the larynx had not been crushed, and that he could say with a reasonable degree of scientific certainty that there had been no rocking back and forth on OfficerVallandingham’s neck by two men standing on a weight bar. State v. Sanders, Tr. at 4166-67, 7174-76.
The Death of Bruce Harris
Prisoner Bruce Harris was killed on the last day of the occupation, at about the same time that other prisoners killed David Sommers (see below).
Harris was apparently a somewhat mentally challenged individual who had been locked in a cell on the upper tier of L-6. On April 21, the last day of the occupation, the Muslims conducted religious services on the corridor of the pod. Harris screamed obscenities from above. He was told to be quiet several times. He persisted in interrupting the others. Finally, several men climbed up to his cell and killed him.
Hasan and Were were indicted for the murder but their juries found them Not Guilty.
Stacey Gordon was a valuable State witness in trials of other homicides. He admitted that he took part in murdering prisoner Bruce Harris but was never indicted.
He was indicted for trying to kill prisoner Fryman and for assaulting two correctional officers. In a 1994 plea deal, the more serious charges were dropped. Gordon was released from prison a few years ago.
The Death of David Sommers
Skatzes and Robb were found guilty and sentenced to death for the aggravated murder of prisoner David Sommers.
The prosecutor argued that a number of prisoners including Skatzes had stabbed, strangled, and battered the victim. But the medical examiner (Dr. Leopold Buerger) testified that Sommers had been killed by a single, massive blow to the head, struck by a blunt instrument such as a baseball bat.
The testimony of prosecution witness Snodgrass, as to where Skatzes was and what he did when, was inconsistent with the testimony of the medical examiner. Snodgrass testified that as Sommers lay face down on the floor, Skatzes stood behind him and hit him with a baseball bat. Dr. Buerger testified that the fatal blow had been struck from the front, apparently when Sommers was in a sitting position.
Snodgrass also testified that Skatzes had struck the first in a series of blows that killed Sommers. Dr. Buerger’s expert medical opinion was that the massive blow that crushed Sommers’ skull and caused his death was the last and final act of aggression.
Moreover, the prosecution in a subsequent separate trial sought and achieved the conviction of another prisoner, Aaron Jefferson, for striking the same blow! Once more, Dr. Buerger testified. State v. Jefferson, Tr. at 267-68, 275, 283. Again he insisted that the cause of death was one single massive blow to the head. Asked whether the fatal injuries could have been the result of multiple blows, the doctor pointed to a picture of the head and told the jury that all the underlying skull fractures were the result of “just that one blow.”
A bloody baseball bat found across the corridor from the shower where Sommers’ body was found was destroyed by order of the chief Lucasville prosecutor, Mark Piepmeier.
Robb and Skatzes were found guilty of the murder of David Sommers.
The prosecution’s story was that a group of Aryans including Robb went to L-3 with the intent of killing prisoners Creager, Copeland and Newell, who they thought had planned a coup within the coup to take leadership of the rebellion away from its initial spokespersons.
Muslim prisoners had locked the three men in cells for their protection, according to the State. Robb was allegedly dispatched to bring the three to L-7 so that they could be killed. However, according to a prosecution witness, Creager and Copeland had converted to the Muslim faith and their co-religionists would not release them.
Accordingly, when Robb returned to L-7 after speaking to the Muslims, someone—perhaps Snodgrass, perhaps Jesse Bocook—supposedly said, “What about that bitch Sommers?” David Sommers had monitored operation of the telephone by means of which Skatzes and others had conducted their negotiations with the authorities. The prosecution’s theory was that Sommers had to be killed because he knew too much.
Then came a bizarre link in the cause and effect proposed by the prosecutors. Robb, it was said, was sent to L-2 with the task of luring Sommers to L-7 so that he could be killed.
But the evidence at trial was that Sommers had chased Robb to pod L-7! And Robb was never alleged to have touched Sommers or to have been anywhere near Sommers when he was killed.
Nor was there any solid evidence a specific intent on Jason Robb’s part to harm or murder David Sommers. In its totality, the evidence of Robb’s intent was a statement from the ever-present Stacey Gordon to the effect that he heard Robb and Sanders discussing the need to silence Sommers as the two left a meeting. Gordon could not remember the day or date of the meeting. Gordon said that the meeting involved only Lavelle, Sanders and Robb although no other witness testified that there had ever been such a meeting. Nonetheless, the trial court concluded: “On the last day of the riot . . . Carlos Sanders and Robb ordered the killing of David Sommers.
What Did the Five Actually Do?
Three of the five men sentenced to death and awaiting execution were, in fact, leaders in seeking and bringing about a peaceful settlement.
Siddique Abdullah Hasan
It is true that Hasan took part in planning what he hoped would be a brief and peaceful occupation of L-6 to protest Warden Tate’s intention of injecting prisoners with a substance containing phenol, a form of alcohol, to test for TB. Hasan had brought to the Warden’s attention a letter from Muslim religious authorities in Port Elizabeth, South Africa, condemning the test as contrary to the Islamic religion. His counsel also sought to call as a witness at his trial a prisoner who, at a different Ohio prison, had been tested for TB by a different method.
Moreover, after the disturbance began, Hasan took pains to cause a number of prisoners who he thought might be suspected “snitches” to be locked in cells for their own protection.
Finally, Hasan was one of three men who negotiated a peaceful surrender of the approximately 400 prisoners in L-block, as well as the release of the hostages still being held.
In the early hours of the rebellion, Skatzes made sure that a severely wounded prisoner (John Fryman) and three severely wounded correctional officers (Harold Fraley, John Kemper, and Robert Schroeder) were placed where they could be retrieved by the authorities so as to receive medical attention.
On Monday, April 12, Skatzes was one of two men who went out on the yard to attempt to begin settlement negotiations.
From Tuesday, April 13 through Thursday, April 15, Skatzes communicated with representatives of the authorities by telephone in an effort to arrange a peaceful resolution. On the evening of April 14, Skatzes and prison negotiator Dave Burchett thought they had arrived at a basis for settlement. After that understanding was rejected by a committee of prisoner representatives the next morning, Skatzes again went on the telephone, pleading with the authorities to turn water and electricity back on in L-block so as to avert the murder of a hostage officer.
On the evening of April 15, Skatzes accompanied correctional Officer Darrold Clark to the yard, where Clark was released. Skatzes then made a radio address in which he sought to explain the prisoners’ concerns and stressed a desire to avoid more “unnecessary murders.”
At Skatzes’ trial, Officer Jeff Ratcliff testified that Skatzes had saved his life.
Robb was found guilty of the aggravated murder of Officer Vallandingham on the basis of a taped transcript of the prisoners’ meeting on the morning of April 15 which, in fact, did not decide to kill a guard.
Robb, like Hasan, was one of the three men who negotiated a peaceful surrender. Attorney Niki Schwartz testified at Robb’s trial about the significant contribution Robb had made to averting a bloodbath like that which ended the Attica uprising. Schwartz told Robb’s jury that Jason:
“deserved a large part of the credit for the peaceful resolution of . . . the riot, that he had stuck his neck out as a lead negotiator, that he had been selfless in negotiating, not trying to . . . feather his own nest, but generally negotiated on behalf of the inmates, that his concerns were legitimate ones, that he was reasonable in . . . accepting things that couldn’t be changed or negotiated or wouldn’t be agreed to by the other side.”
At Attica in 1971, armed agents of the state stormed the occupied recreation yard and more than forty human beings — hostage correctional officers as well as prisoners — were killed.
At Lucasville in 1993, after an occupation roughly three times as long as at Attica, ten people died.
On Singling Out Leaders
Thus our generalization stands: The State does not know who did the murders, and so they targeted five men whom they considered leaders and convicted them for aggravated murder on the basis of the doctrine of “complicity.”
The prisoners in rebellion saw it coming. On the bedsheets that they hung out the windows of L-block they demanded: “No selection of supposed leaders!” In their telephone negotiations the prisoners declared: “There must not be any singling out or selection of any inmate or group of leaders as supposed leaders in this alleged riot.” And in the list of 21 demands agreed to by the authorities as the basis for surrender, and signed by Warden Tate, Point No. 2 stated explicitly: “Administrative discipline and criminal proceedings will be fairly and impartially administered without bias against individuals or groups.”
But from the very first moments after the surrender, the authorities, whether correctional officers or prosecutors, were intent to blame everything on supposed leaders.
John Fryman was a prisoner who was assaulted by other prisoners and almost killed as the rebellion began. He was no friend of the insurrectionists. Confined to the prison infirmary after the surrender, Fryman was accosted by correctional officers. He later stated in an affidavit:
“They made it clear that they wanted the leaders. They wanted to prosecute Hasan, George Skatzes, Lavelle, Jason Robb, and another Muslim whose name I don’t remember. They had not yet begun their investigation but they knew they wanted those leaders. I joked with them and said, “You basically don’t care what I say as long as it’s against these guys.” They said, “Yeah, that’s it.”
Another prisoner in the infirmary who had no reason to make up testimony favorable to riot participants was Emanuel “Buddy” Newell. He was one of three men whom the Aryans may have wanted to assault on the last day of the occupation, and was actually assaulted with intent to kill by Rodger Snodgrass. But Newell states under oath, in another affidavit, that as he too lay in the infirmary after the surrender, Lieutenant James Root, lead investigator Sergeant Howard Hudson, and Troopers Randy McGough and Cary Sayers talked with him.
According to Newell:
“These officers said, “We want Skatzes. We want Lavelle. We want Hasan.” They also said, “We know they were leaders. We want to burn their ass. We want to put them in the electric chair for murdering Officer Vallandingham.”
Similarly, Hasan’s prosecutor told the jury that the entire sequence of events between April 11 and April 21 should be blamed on Hasan. Hasan’s defense counsel were not permitted to present evidence as to the causes of the prisoner rebellion at SOCF. No such restriction was imposed on counsel for the State. Prosecutor Gerald Krumpelbeck began his opening statement to the jury in State v. Sanders as follows:
“Ladies and gentlemen, let me introduce you to the riot at the Southern Ohio Correctional Facility of Easter Day, April 11, 1993. The evidence will show, to begin with, that this riot is misnamed. This riot was the idea of one man. This riot was planned by one man. This riot was organized by one man.”
In closing argument in the same trial, co-prosecutor Richard Gibson sounded the same theme:
“Whose riot was this? . . . Who called for this riot? . . . Ladies and gentlemen, first and foremost, this was his riot.”
Testifying in Robb’s trial, Attorney Schwartz concluded that implementation of the assurance in Point Two of the settlement agreement that criminal prosecutions would be fair had been “an absolute disaster.”
The essence of the State’s approach to what happened at Lucasville is
1) not knowing who really committed the murders, and so
2) singling out “leaders” as responsible for everything done by anyone.
This is guilt by association. It is scapegoating. A new capital punishment law had been enacted by the state legislature several years before but there had been no executions pursuant to its provisions. After the uprising, about 26,000 residents of southern Ohio signed petitions and form letters demanding that the capital punishment statute of Ohio “be applied.” Investigators and prosecutors were under heavy pressure to convict and punish somebody.
In reality, both sides, the prisoners and the authorities, share responsibility for what happened.
Warden Tate took the unnecessarily rigid position that Muslim prisoners should be injected for TB in the manner he had decided, even though there were other methods, equally acceptable from a medical point of view, one of which had been used in another Ohio prison.
The Warden left SOCF undermanned for the Easter weekend even though he had been warned of a possible disturbance, and failed adequately to inform those in charge of predictable trouble.
It took an inexplicably long time for forces of the State to mobilize a response when the prisoners took over L-block. There is every reason to believe that the uprising could have been ended quickly, without bloodshed, had the authorities acted promptly.
The so-called “safewells” in each pod of L-block in which several officers took refuge proved not to be safe from assault by prisoners.
Proceeding under a mistaken theory that the longer the siege, the less likelihood there would be that hostages would be harmed, the authorities deliberately stalled.
Following an equally erroneous strategy of making life in L-block as difficult as possible, the authorities turned off electric power and water for that part of the prison.
Finally, Ms. Unwin’s unfortunate remark on April 14 that the prisoners’ threat to kill a guard, written on a bedsheet, was a “standard threat” and “nothing new,” was perceived in retrospect by both prisoners and hostage officers in L-block to have been the incident that triggered Officer Vallandingham’s murder. Indeed, the union’s written report on the uprising stated that Ms. Unwin’s comment “practically guaranteed the hostage death [because] the inmates were almost forced to kill or maim a hostage.”
This is not to deny or de-emphasize the fact that several prisoners, most of them presently unknown, carried out ten brutal improvised executions of defenseless human beings.
Whatever entrance to this maze is chosen by an investigator, one comes in the end to a tangle of shared responsibilities.
To say, in the face of the evidence, that the present sentences should be carried out, that five men should be executed and a dozen others serve what may amount to the rest of their lives behind bars, when in truth the State does not know who did the killings, or is concealing their identities, would be stubborn and irresponsible.