Dec. 13, 2004 3:36 p.m.
Sometimes people who should be at their weakest find great strength, responding in remarkable ways to tragic circumstances.
Rachel Muha is one of those people.
Her son Brian was brutally murdered. An 18-year-old college student, he hurt no one, threatened no one, and was asleep on a couch in off-campus housing.
Two men break in. They hit him in the head with a gun, shattering his jaw, then hit him again, opening a gash on his forehead. They then grab one of his roommates, Aaron Land.
By the time the cops arrive, the boys have already been kidnapped, and the thugs have now stolen Brian's Chevy Blazer. It's actually his mom's truck. She lent it to Brian so he could move his stuff from their house in Columbus to Steubenville, where he attends Franciscan University. He wanted to go to Notre Dame, but his big brother Chris picked Franciscan, and Brian idolized Chris and missed him when he went off to college first.
The kidnappers are drugged up and set on doing harm. Rachel says they told investigators they wanted to know what it felt like to kill. They drive east out of town on Route 22, traveling about 12 miles, crossing the border into Pennsylvania. They pull off the remote stretch of highway and march the bleeding pair up the hill at gunpoint. They humiliate the boys in unspeakable ways. Then they shoot Brian’s roommate Aaron in the head. It's the last thing he sees before he too is executed.
The killers are soon caught, after driving Brian's truck back to Ohio and trying to get cash with his MAC card with the boy’s blood on their clothes. Before long they're implicating each other. The evidence is overwhelming. A year later they're separately tried and convicted. Nathan “Boo” Herring is sentenced to life without parole, the other, Terrell Yarbrough, is sentenced to death.
Rachel and her family are devastated at the loss of Brian and Aaron, but relieved that justice is done and the men responsible are being punished.
Fast-forward four years. The Ohio Supreme Court reviews Yarbrough's conviction and makes a surprising decision. Even though district attorneys in both states discussed jurisdictional questions, and even though defense attorneys didn't feel jurisdiction was an issue on appeal, the Court rules the trial should've been held in Pennsylvania, not Ohio, and tosses out the murder conviction and death sentence.
In the eyes of the court Yarbrough’s no longer a killer. Pennsylvania may re-try him, but they may not. Herring isn't going anywhere anytime soon either, but he could appeal on the same grounds.
The worst part for Rachel and the other family members is the knowledge that if they want justice, they'll have to sit through another trial and relive the awful details of the murders all over again.
In spite of the tremendous pain, Rachel has created a scholarship fund in her son's name. She collects donations to send underprivileged kids to college. She just put a young man through four years at Franciscan. The new graduate grew up just down the street from one of her son's killers.
Rachel told me that the day her son was murdered white roses arrived. Brian had ordered them before he left for school, with a card to remind his mom he loved and missed her. When Rachel got the flowers, she didn't know her son was already dead. Later, his body was found under a white rose bush. When she visited the site with some of Brian's college friends, one of them broke off a branch from the bush and gave it to Rachel, who brought it home, put it in water, and forgot about it. Later, when she realized the branch was growing roots, she planted it in her backyard, where it's grown and flourished. Today, with winter fast approaching, the bush's thorny branches are bare.
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Dear Mr. Leventhal,
I think it's a tragedy of justice that a capital murder conviction can be overturned on such a ridiculous technicality that should have been resolved in a much more logical fashion. The system has failed.
Timothy (Oak Harbor, WA)
This is just another example of how ridiculously complicated our legal system is. As a law enforcement officer, I am sickened by the numerous cases of recidivism by parolees, who victimize the innocent over and over again. Will these two animals do the same?
Dear Mr. Leventhal,
Who appointed the judge who came up with this idiotic ruling? It is about time that we stop handing out judgeships as political favors and boot the ones that are incompetent.
Losing faith in the justice system.
Dave (Rocklin, CA)
I truly believe that the members of the Ohio Supreme (a strange name for such idiots) Court be forced to live with Rachel Muha and experience every bit of her devastating pain, every single second of every single day. These people are PIGS, and that's a slam to the animal.
How can a judge, a thinking, feeling, walking, talking human being, make such a decision? I understand technicalities, but I understand much better the need to satisfy justice. Where are people senses of right and wrong?
Kelly C. (Walnut Grove, GA)
Astonishing bad judgment by a court of law... please keep us updated if there are any new developments and let's hope the murderer stays where he belongs on death row.
Rick, Although it sounds awful, I believe the biggest danger to us, as a nation isn't drugs or terrorism, it's turning out to be our laws & legal system. The same laws & system that are supposed to give us life, liberty, and happiness will become our demise.
Ron (Greenville, SC)
Sir, I truly hope that Mrs. Muha is doing O.K. through all of this and can retain the strength to see this through to a just conclusion. I am not a praying man but I will think of her and this story for a long time, I will ask God to help her, and I hope that she has the support that she needs to continue. Thank You
Best Regards to you and Mrs. Muha.
Tim (Chino, CA)
This is a terrible shame. As hard as it will be for Rachel, does the state of Pennsylvania plan on prosecuting this case? As hard as it may be for her, it would be an even greater tragedy to let this kid who killed someone for the thrill of it to be able to walk the streets again…and frightening too.