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Court News Ohio
Court News Ohio

Death Penalty Upheld for Man Who Killed Two Women in Ashland

Image of a man wearing glasses and a blue jacket

Death-row inmate Shawn Grate

Image of a man wearing glasses and a blue jacket

Death-row inmate Shawn Grate

The Ohio Supreme Court today unanimously affirmed the convictions and death sentences for a man who murdered two women and abducted and raped another woman.

The police found the bodies of two women during a search of a vacant Ashland house, where Shawn Grate was living, after another woman was able to free herself from Grate in September 2016 and contact police. The woman who survived Grate’s attacks was held for two nights and had been repeatedly assaulted by him.

The Supreme Court rejected Grate’s legal arguments alleging errors during his trial , including multiple claims that his defense attorneys were ineffective.

The Court noted, however, that Grate’s attorneys were deficient when they didn’t object to testimony about the theft of a safe, about glass tubes referred to as “love roses” used for drugs, and about Grate’s calls to a marijuana dealer. Writing for the Court, Justice Judith L. French concluded that, given the overwhelming evidence of Grate’s guilt, his lawyers’ deficient performance in these instances did not deprive Grate of a fair trial.

Chief Justice Maureen O’Connor and Justices Sharon L. Kennedy, Patrick F. Fischer, R. Patrick DeWine, and Melody J. Stewart joined Justice French’s decision.

In a written concurring opinion, Justice Michael P. Donnelly agreed with the Court’s opinion and judgment upholding the convictions and death sentences, but he raised concerns about the performance of Grate’s attorneys during the mitigation phase of the proceedings.

Grate Moves into Abandoned Ashland House, Befriends Local Women
After moving from Richland County to Ashland County in June 2016, Grate broke into a vacant house in Ashland in July 2016 and began living there. He regularly had meals at a Salvation Army center, where he met a woman identified as L.S. They took walks around Ashland a couple times a week that summer, talking about the Bible and life. Although Grate was interested in L.S. romantically, she told him she only wanted to be friends.

L.S. introduced Grate to E.G., her neighbor. On Aug. 16, E.G. went shopping in Ashland and was last seen walking in town in the afternoon. She was reported missing about two weeks later.

On the evening of Sept. 8, a Huron County woman, identified as S.S., was shopping in Ashland and stopped at an Ashland service station because of a flat tire. She called her son, who arranged for a friend to drive there and assist her. Grate was at the station, and he and S.S. happened to meet. Once Grate and S.S.’s friend fixed the tire, the friend left. S.S. bought Grate a cup of coffee, and they left the store together.

A few days later, Grate took a walk with L.S. and told her he had a bag of clothes for her. They went to the house where he had been staying. L.S. was showing Grate Bible passages when he pulled the Bible out of her hands and said, “[Y]ou are not going anywhere.”

When she tried to push him away, he punched her in the head and face and started choking her. He tied her up, sexually assaulted her repeatedly, gave her pills, and recorded the rapes on a cell phone. During the second night she was held at the house, she loosened her restraints and called 911 while Grate was sleeping. Police responded and arrested Grate.

Bodies Discovered, and Grate Confesses
Police searched the house. They found E.G.’s body in a second-floor closet under clothing and bedding. In the basement, they found S.S.’s body under a pile of trash.

During the ensuing weeks, Grate made multiple confessions to the police about the murders, rapes, and kidnappings.

Grate told police that he went to L.S.’s apartment on Aug. 16, but she wasn’t home. Grate said E.G. saw him and invited him to her apartment, where they talked and played Yahtzee. They went to Grate’s house to eat, and E.G. went home. Later that night, E.G. called Grate, asking if he wanted to play Yahtzee and talk more. They met and went to his house. They talked, and she wanted to look around the house. Grate strangled her in an upstairs bedroom and placed her body in a closet, sealing the door with duct tape.

Grate also admitted raping and murdering S.S. after meeting her at the service station. They had driven to the house where he was living, gone inside, and kissed. He criticized S.S. for flirting with her friend at the gas station. When she denied flirting, he became angry and sexually assaulted her, recording it on his cell phone. She tried to spray him with Mace, and he strangled her.

Numerous Charges Include Possibility of Death Penalty
Grate was indicted on 23 counts, including aggravated murder with death-penalty specifications, kidnapping, rape, gross abuse of a corpse, robbery, and burglary. He pleaded not guilty to all charges. Eight days into his trial, he changed his pleas to guilty on 15 counts.

He asked the trial judge, rather than the jury , to try him on two sexually-violent-predator specifications, and the judge found him guilty. The jury found Grate guilty on all remaining counts and specifications, and recommended the death penalty for the aggravated-murder convictions. The trial court agreed, sentencing him to death, and also sentenced him to 90 years to life in prison on the noncapital offenses.

Because the death penalty was imposed, Grate was entitled to an automatic appeal to the Ohio Supreme Court.

Supreme Court Analyzes Grate’s Assertions
The Court rejected Grate’s arguments that his trial attorneys were ineffective because they did not request a change of venue, did not try to limit news media access to the trial proceedings, failed to ask for a continuance to allow for more neuroimaging, failed to present any evidence during the guilt phase, did not cross-examine most of the state’s witnesses, and only offered testimony from two witnesses during the mitigation phase, among several other claims.

Grate also contended that his attorneys failed to object to evidence of other acts that was presented to the jury. The Court determined that a police detective’s testimony that Grate said he had stolen a safe had no bearing on the charged offenses and was irrelevant. Nor did anything connect the drug-related “love roses” with the charges against Grate or link phone calls made to a marijuana dealer with a motive for stealing money from L.S.’s apartment, Justice French wrote.  

“But defense counsel's deficient performance did not result in prejudice that deprived Grate of a fair trial considering the other overwhelming evidence of his guilt, including his confessions, L.S.’s testimony, the videos of S.S.’s rape, and his apprehension at the crime scene,” the opinion stated.

Court Conducts Independent Evaluation
In cases in which a death sentence in imposed, the Court independently reviews the appropriateness and proportionality of the death sentence and independently determines whether the aggravating circumstances outweigh the mitigating factors. The Court found that the evidence at Grate’s trial supported both convictions for aggravated murder.

On the mitigating side, the Court found nothing mitigating in the nature or circumstances of the offenses, describing them as “horrific crimes that lack any mitigating features.” Some weight in mitigation was given to Grate’s confessions, cooperation with police, and his drug problems. Weight was given to his chaotic background and upbringing, which included prevalent emotional abuse. The Court gave considerable weight to Grate’s several mental-health problems.

The Court concluded, though, that the aggravating circumstances surrounding each murder “clearly outweigh[ed]” the mitigating factors beyond a reasonable doubt. The Court also determined that the death penalty was appropriate and proportional based on other similar cases in which a death was imposed.

Concurrence Focused on Incomplete Mental-Health Diagnoses
Justice Donnelly stated that Grate may have been prejudiced by his attorneys’ deficient performance during the mitigation part of the trial – particularly related to their alleged failure to offer adequate psychiatric and neurological evidence.

“Defense counsel failed to ensure the timely analysis of Grate’s neuroimaging results and failed to ensure that the expert was able to finish Grate’s mitigation report, leaving the jury with an incomplete view of Grate’s mental health,” the concurrence stated.

“Counsel’s failure to provide the jury with Grate’s potential mental-health diagnoses could be particularly problematic given that mental-health diagnoses are ‘entitled to significant weight in mitigation,’” Justice Donnelly wrote. “However, speculation is not evidence and there is not enough information in the record before this court to conclude whether Grate has satisfied the prejudice prong of the ineffective-assistance-of-counsel analysis set forth in Strickland v. Washington, … (1984). Information outside the record is necessary to determine whether counsel’s failure to present particular evidence had a prejudicial impact on the outcome of Grate’s mitigation phase of his capital proceedings. … If such evidence exists, it would be entirely appropriate to submit it in a postconviction petition as support for an ineffective-assistance-of-counsel claim.”

2018-0968. State v. Grate, Slip Opinion No. 2020-Ohio-5584.

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