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Court News Ohio

Court Vacates Death Sentence, Upholds Conviction of Youngstown Man

Image of inmate Bennie Adams

While the conviction of Bennie Adams for aggravated murder stands, his sentence of death has been overturned.

Image of inmate Bennie Adams

While the conviction of Bennie Adams for aggravated murder stands, his sentence of death has been overturned.

The Ohio Supreme Court has set aside the death sentence of Bennie Adams, who was convicted in 2007 for the 1985 murder of a Youngstown State University student who lived in the same apartment building.

The state charged Adams with aggravated murder. Adams was eligible for the death penalty, the state alleged, because he murdered his victim while committing one or more underlying felonies – rape, kidnapping, aggravated robbery, or aggravated burglary. But the state did not ask the jury to indicate which of the underlying felonies Adams committed. In such circumstances, Chief Justice Maureen O’Connor explained in the majority opinion, Ohio law requires the state to produce substantial evidence to prove all four felonies.  Because the state did not establish that Adams committed aggravated burglary, “the evidence is, as a matter of law, insufficient to support a death sentence,” she wrote.

The Supreme Court upheld Adams’ conviction for aggravated murder, though. The case now returns to the trial court for a new sentencing hearing in line with the decision. The chief justice noted, however, that the state is prohibited by the U.S. Constitution’s double jeopardy clause from seeking the death penalty on remand.

Woman Reports Break-In
In fall 1985, Gina Tenney lived alone in a second-floor apartment of a converted house in Youngstown. Adams resided in a downstairs apartment with his girlfriend. The house had a shared common area that led to the apartments.

On Dec. 25, 1985, about 1 a.m., Tenney told a friend she heard someone at the door with keys trying to get into her apartment. She called her ex-boyfriend who came over and left near 3 a.m. Again, she heard someone at the door. She had placed a chair against the door, and the intruder knocked over the chair and entered her apartment. She called the police, who later found footprints in the snow from her apartment to a location on a different street.

Five days later, Tenney was discovered dead in the Mahoning River.

Police Find Victim’s Items in Neighbor’s Apartment
Detective William Blanchard, who Tenney spoke with the day after the break-in, and two homicide detectives went to the home to investigate. Adams let them in the front door. When the officers found Tenney’s door locked, they went back to Adams’ apartment to ask to call the building’s owner for a key. Adams allowed them inside his apartment to use his phone.

While one detective made the call, the other two were talking with Adams when they heard a noise from another room. The officers went into a back bedroom and found Horace Landers hiding behind a door.

One of the officers recognized Landers and recalled that a misdemeanor warrant was out for him. The detectives arrested and handcuffed Landers. It was cold outside and he was shirtless, so Blanchard put a shirt from the bed over his shoulders, then picked up a jacket from the floor outside the bedroom. He searched the jacket for weapons and discovered an ATM card with Tenney’s name on it and a county welfare card in Adams’ name. Landers said the jacket belonged to Adams.

The police arrested Adams. During a search of his apartment, they found a set of keys that opened Tenney’s apartment and her car, a potholder that matched one in her kitchen, and her television. In Tenney’s apartment, nothing was broken or damaged.

Her friends told investigators that Adams had been bothering Tenney for a while, such as calling her and wanting her to invite him to her apartment. She eventually changed her phone number. She began expressing fear of Adams to friends and also asked people to stay with her after the break-in.

Case Goes Cold
Tenney’s death was ruled a homicide. While the police suspected that Adams may have been involved in Tenney’s murder, the investigation stalled. Adams was charged in 1986 with receiving stolen property, because he had her ATM card and television, but the grand jury did not indict him. Then, in November 1986, Adams was convicted of kidnapping, rape, and aggravated robbery in an unrelated case. After 18 years in prison for that crime, he was paroled in April 2004.

DNA Testing Revives Case Two Decades Later
In 2007, DNA testing was done by a state agency on evidence from the Tenney case and new samples from Tenney’s ex-boyfriend and Adams. Police subsequently arrested Adams for Tenney’s murder.

The trial court dismissed charges for rape, aggravated burglary, aggravated robbery, and kidnapping because they were filed past the statute of limitations for those crimes. However, the jury considered a charge of aggravated murder with a death-penalty specification, which alleged that Tenney’s murder was committed during or immediately after committing or trying to commit rape, aggravated burglary, aggravated robbery, and kidnapping. The jury found Adams guilty of the charge and the specification, and recommended the death penalty. The Seventh District Court of Appeals affirmed the conviction and sentence.

Issue of Underlying Offenses
At trial, the court told the jury that the death-penalty specification was proven if the jury determined that Adams committed any of the four underlying offenses – rape, aggravated burglary, aggravated robbery, or kidnapping.

Chief Justice O’Connor explained that jurors do not need to be unanimous about which underlying, or “predicate,” offense a defendant committed, as long as they unanimously convict the defendant of aggravated murder. “Adams became death-eligible when the jury unanimously found him guilty of aggravated murder in the course of some predicate felony,” she noted.

The first step in the Supreme Court’s independent review of the death sentence is to decide whether the evidence supports the jury’s finding of the aggravating circumstance, which is the specification involving the four underlying offenses that allows the death penalty to be imposed.

“In a case such as this one, jury unanimity is not required as to the means underlying the capital specification so long as substantial evidence supports each alternative means,” the chief justice wrote. “The state assumed the burden of producing sufficient evidence as to each of the alternative means of the … specification here, given the way the omnibus capital specification was presented to the jury.”

State Did Not Prove Aggravated Burglary
In its review, the Supreme Court determined that the state showed sufficient evidence that Adams committed rape, kidnapping, and aggravated robbery. However, while finding items such as Tenney’s television and potholder in Adams’ possession point to him being in her apartment at some point, aggravated burglary requires more than proof of trespass, Chief Justice O’Connor reasoned.

“The state never committed to a single theory of where and under what circumstances the rape and murder occurred, and in presenting its evidence, the state failed to prove the essential elements that distinguish aggravated burglary from simple trespass,” she wrote. In addition, “[a]ggravated burglary requires proof that the defendant trespassed ‘by force, stealth, or deception.’ R.C. 2911.11(A). Blanchard testified that he saw no fresh signs of forcible entry into Tenney’s apartment, which undercuts a theory that Adams forced his way through the door. Although it is possible that Adams entered through stealth or deception, there was no probative evidence of either. The state never directly addressed the manner by which Adams secured entry to the apartment, and absent evidence of that type, the finding of the specification pertaining to that underlying offense cannot stand.

“The state chose to undertake to prove that Adams committed a specific offense, aggravated murder in the course of aggravated burglary, and by doing so, assumed the affirmative duty to prove all elements of aggravated burglary in proving the capital specification,” she explained. “It failed to do so, and that failure cannot be remedied by flinging a plank of hypothesis across an abyss of uncertainty ….

“Given all the unknowns surrounding the commission of aggravated burglary, we are compelled to conclude that no rational trier of fact could find beyond a reasonable doubt that Adams committed that offense,” she concluded. “And we are compelled to hold that the state’s success in proving some of the alternative means cannot make up for its failure to prove all the suggested means by which Adams may have committed the aggravating circumstance.”

Conviction Stands
Overturning the death sentence does not alter the conviction for aggravated murder, however, Chief Justice O’Connor added. While the justices dissenting on this issue find it “logically inconsistent” that the Court would vacate the death sentence without setting aside the related conviction, she reasoned that the Court had no authority to review the murder conviction for sufficiency of evidence. The Court is mandated to independently review the evidence supporting the aggravating circumstance. But, she noted, the Court cannot consider whether the evidence supported the aggravated-murder conviction unless the defendant has raised the issue, which Adams did not.

Joining the majority opinion were Justices Paul E. Pfiefer, Judith L. French, and William M. O’Neill.

Justices Terrence O’Donnell and Sharon L. Kennedy concurred in part and dissented in part in an opinion written by Justice O’Donnell.

Justice Judith Ann Lanzinger also concurred in part and dissented in part.

Two Justices Would Have Affirmed Death Sentence
Justice O’Donnell dissented from the majority’s decision to vacate the death sentence and to remand for a new sentencing that precludes capital punishment. He noted the logical inconsistency in upholding the aggravated murder conviction while vacating the death sentence “because in order to prove an aggravated murder … and the aggravating circumstance necessary to impose the sentence of death in this case, the state is required to prove the same elements beyond a reasonable doubt.” For this reason, he added, “If the evidence of guilt is sufficient to support a finding of guilt of aggravated murder, it is also sufficient to uphold the penalty recommended by the same jury that found guilt.”

Relying on two U.S. Supreme Court opinions – Griffin v. United States (1991) and Sochor v. Florida (1992) – along with decisions from federal circuit courts and other state supreme courts, Justice O’Donnell explained that “a general verdict is not subject to reversal when the jury is presented with alternative means supporting a finding of guilt, as long as at least one of those alternative means is supported by sufficient evidence.” He pointed out that the holdings of Griffin and Sochor “remain binding federal constitutional law,” yet the majority had not determined that the Ohio Constitution affords any greater protection in these circumstances.

“In cases of this distinction where neither a verdict form requesting a specific finding nor an interrogatory was submitted to the jury, we presume, as the Supreme Court directs us to in Griffin and Sochor, that the jury acted rationally, honestly, and intelligently and disregarded any alternative means of committing the capital specification not proven by the evidence,” he continued. “Nothing in this record affirmatively demonstrates that the jury relied on the aggravated burglary allegations to support the capital specification charged in this case — and in his brief to this court, Adams did not challenge the sufficiency of the evidence supporting the aggravating circumstance found by the jury, likely because the jury heard overwhelming and compelling evidence that Adams raped and kidnapped Tenney.”

“Accordingly, neither the language of the Eighth Amendment nor principles of due process requires this court to negate the jury’s verdict that Adams committed the murder in the course of committing rape, kidnapping, aggravated robbery, or aggravated burglary…,” he concluded. “And the aggravating circumstance in this case outweighs the mitigating factors beyond a reasonable doubt. Thus, there is no reason to negate the imposition of the death sentence.”

Justice O’Donnell would have affirmed the Seventh District’s judgment.

Another Justice Would Have Ordered New Trial
Justice Lanzinger, however, agreed with the majority that Adams’ death sentence should be set aside. But she reasoned that the aggravated-murder conviction must also be overturned because it was invalidated by the wording of the jury’s verdict.

“[B]ecause the jury’s verdict is worded in the disjunctive — rape, aggravated burglary, aggravated robbery, or kidnapping — and because the verdict was not tested by an interrogatory to show what predicate offense or offenses were found beyond a reasonable doubt, it is conceivable that the jury determined Adams to be guilty of committing the offense of aggravated murder while committing, attempting to commit, or fleeing immediately after committing or attempting to commit only aggravated burglary,” she wrote. “It is mere speculation that the jury found that any of the other three felonies that would have been an element of the aggravated-murder charge and the capital specification was proved. For this reason, I believe that the case must be remanded for a new trial rather than merely a new sentencing hearing.”

Citing a line of U.S. Supreme Court cases beginning with Apprendi v. New Jersey (2000) and culminating in Alleyne v. United States (2013), she added, “I believe that upholding this defective verdict would amount to approving ‘judicial factfinding that increases the mandatory minimum sentence for a crime,’ and would violate the Sixth Amendment [to the U.S. Constitution].”

“We cannot uphold Adams’s guilty verdict when the jury did not make the required findings, and the ambiguity of the jury’s verdict accordingly precludes us from affirming something that the jury may not have even decided,” she concluded.

She noted that she did not join Justice O’Donnell’s opinion because she determined that the two U.S. Supreme Court cases he relied on predated the U.S. Supreme Court decisions she cited and did not address a defendant’s rights under the Sixth Amendment.

2011-1978. State v. Adams, Slip Opinion No. 2015-Ohio-3954.

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