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Court Affirms Conviction, Death Sentence of Toledo Killer

2005-1316. State v. Frazier, 2007-Ohio-5048.
Lucas C.P. No CR04-1509. Judgment affirmed.
Moyer, C.J., Pfeifer, Lundberg Stratton, O'Connor, O'Donnell, Lanzinger and Cupp, JJ., concur.
Opinion: http://www.supremecourt.ohio.gov/rod/docs/pdf/0/2007/2007-Ohio-5048.pdf

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(Oct. 10, 2007) The Supreme Court of Ohio today unanimously affirmed the conviction and death sentence of James Frazier of Toledo for the aggravated murder of Mary Stevenson during a March 2004 robbery of her apartment. Frazier also was convicted of aggravated robbery and aggravated burglary in the case.

In today's decision, written by Justice Evelyn Lundberg Stratton, the Court overruled all 24 assignments of error advanced by Frazier's attorneys as grounds to overturn his convictions or reduce his sentence, including claims that his trial counsel was ineffective and that Frazier is mentally deficient.

Frazier and Stevenson were both residents of the Northgate Apartments in Toledo. On the evening of March 1 and in the early morning of March 2, 2004, Frazier and a group of individuals smoked crack cocaine and drank alcohol inside Frazier's third-floor apartment. At some point, Frazier's guests ran out of crack. Frazier called someone to deliver more crack, and he also called someone for money to buy it. More crack was brought to Frazier's apartment later that night. Frazier was wearing jeans and a white T-shirt during the party. At some point during the evening, Frazier left the party. When he returned, Frazier was not wearing a shirt.

On the morning of March 2, Stevenson's boyfriend knocked on Stevenson's apartment door, but she did not answer and did not respond to several other attempts to reach her during the day. Late that afternoon, the apartment complex assistant manager checked on Stevenson, who suffered from cerebral palsy, and after receiving no answer, entered the apartment to find Stevenson lying on the bedroom floor dead. Police found that Stevenson's throat had been slashed. An autopsy later determined that she had also been strangled, and found abrasions and lacerations consistent with vaginal intercourse that had occurred while the victim was alive. They found no signs of a struggle, forcible entry or indication that her apartment had been ransacked. Her purse and ID cards were missing and police found no cash in her apartment. No knife or other apparent murder weapons was found in the apartment; however, a knife was missing from the knife holder on the kitchen counter.

On March 3, police examined the sealed trash compacter-dumpster that was used by apartment residents living on the second through 10 th floors. During the search, investigators found Stevenson's purses, two bills addressed to Frazier, and a blood-stained T-shirt similar to others owned by Frazier that had been turned inside out. Police also found a knife that matched the set of knives in Stevenson's kitchen, which appeared to have blood on it. Later, DNA analysts determined that the blood stains on the knife blade and T-shirt were consistent with Stevenson's DNA. Experts also were able to determine that a public hair found on Stevenson's forearm had DNA consistent with Frazier's.

When interviewed by police on March 4, Frazier told officers that he watched TV at a friend's apartment until midnight or 1 a.m. on March 2 and then returned to his apartment. Sometime after 6 a.m. on March 2, he said he went to the laundry room with a basket of bedding and found a woman having a seizure on the laundry-room floor. He said he knocked on Stevenson's door, which was close to the laundry room, and told her he needed to call 911. After Stevenson let him into her apartment, he called 911. He said he then left her apartment and waited for paramedics, but when he returned to the laundry room, the woman was gone. Frazier said Stevenson was fine when he left her apartment and that he did not return to her apartment after making the 911 call.

Frazier was indicted by a grand jury on one count of aggravated murder while committing a violent felony, one count of aggravated robbery and one count of aggravated burglary. The aggravated murder charge included death-penalty specifications. Frazier pleaded not guilty to all the charges. A jury found Frazier guilty on all charges and specifications, and he was sentenced to death. As in all death penalty cases, Frazier's convictions and sentence were subject to automatic review by the Supreme Court.

Among other allegations of trial court error rejected in today's decision, the Court denied Frazier's claim that the trial judge's instructions to the jury were defective because the judge failed to tell jurors during the sentencing phase that the standard of proof Frazier must meet to establish mitigating factors favoring a life sentence rather than death was not the stringent standard of “beyond a reasonable doubt” as in other stages of the trial, but was the less-demanding standard of a “preponderance of evidence.” Justice Stratton held that the trial court instructed the jury that the “defendant does not have the burden of proof,” an instruction more favorable to Frazier than the absent instruction.

The Court rejected Frazier's assertion that he cannot be executed because he is mentally retarded and that his counsel was ineffective by failing to present and preserve evidence of his mental retardation. Two different experts who performed IQ tests of Frazier testified that his full scale IQ was 72 and 75, and that he was not mentally retarded. The Court also rejected Frazier's claim that his counsel provided ineffective assistance by failing to present evidence that he is mentally retarded, noting that Frazier was consulted during a hearing before his attorneys withdrew his mental retardation claim.

The Court also denied Frazier's claims that his counsel provided ineffective assistance in pretrial preparation, voir dire (jury selection) and during the guilt and sentencing phases of his trial by failing to object at various times, failing to retain a substance-abuse expert to present testimony about his history of abusing drugs and alcohol and failing to request a venue change, among other allegations. Justice Stratton held that Frazier did not establish either that his attorneys had failed to meet accepted standards of practice or that, but for their alleged errors or omissions, the jury would have arrived at a different verdict regarding his guilt or the imposition of a death sentence in his case.

In conducting the Court's own independent weighing of aggravating and mitigating factors in the case, Justice Stratton wrote, “We find nothing in the nature and circumstances of the offense to be mitigating. Frazier entered Stevenson's apartment and murdered her by strangling her and slitting her throat. Afterwards, Frazier stole two of her purses and fled the scene. These facts establish a horrific crime without any mitigating features.”

The Court also ruled that the jury's death penalty imposed for the aggravated murder of Stevenson is proportionate to death sentences approved for other robbery-murder and burglary-murder cases.

David F. Cooper, 419.213.2061, for the State of Ohio and Lucas County prosecutor's office.

Spiros Cocoves, 419.241.5506, for James Frazier.