COLUMBUS, Ohio – Ohio Gov. John Kasich on Tuesday spared the condemned killer of a convenience store owner whose execution was opposed by the detective who investigated the slaying, the prosecutor who pushed for the death sentence and a judge who handed down the sentence.
Records show that death row inmate John Eley was offered the chance to escape the death penalty in exchange for testimony against his alleged conspirator, considered the mastermind of the slaying, but Eley refused to testify or take a deal.
Kasich said he based his decision on Eley acting under the direction of another, and what he called Eley's limited mental capacity.
"Without those factors it is doubtful that Eley would have committed this crime," said Kasich, who changed Eley's sentence to life in prison with no chance of parole.
The governor also noted that the former Mahoning County prosecutor who tried Eley now regrets how the case was handled and its outcome, and has called for mercy.
The decision was the third time since taking office last year that the Republican Kasich has spared an inmate on the eve of execution.
Eley, 63, had been scheduled to die July 26 for the 1986 killing of Ihsan Aydah, owner of Sinjil Market in Youngstown.
Records show that Eley was given the gun used in the shooting by accomplice Melvin Green, who told him to go into the store where he'd been banned for making previous threats. Green was acquitted in a separate trial, a result blamed on Eley refusing to testify against him.
The Mahoning County Prosecutor's Office expressed disappointment in the decision.
"The evidence may have suggested that Melvin originally came up with the plan, but Eley certainly went along with it," said assistant prosecutor Ralph Rivera. "He was the one with the gun. He certainly was the one who pulled the trigger and killed the victim. It was his choice."
Kasich's decision overruled the Ohio Parole Board, which recommended against clemency in a 5-3 ruling last month, a rare divided vote in a death penalty case.
Assertions by supporters "do not outweigh the fact that Eley took the gun from Green, entered the store with the intent to rob the victim, knew that the victim had a gun and might try to use it, and then shot him in the head," said members of the board ruling in favor of clemency.
The majority had also rejected claims by Eley's lawyers that he is mentally ill and mentally disabled.
Former Mahoning County prosecutor Gary Van Brocklin told the board in a videotaped statement that Green set up the entire robbery.
Van Brocklin said Tuesday that pushing for Eley to be spared was the right and fair thing to do considering the facts of the case.
"But for Melvin Green, none of these events would have happened," Van Brocklin said.
Former Mahoning County Judge Peter Economus — now a federal judge — said if defense attorneys had presented more reasons why Eley should have been spared, he wouldn't have voted in favor of a death sentence.
Retired Youngstown police detective Joseph Fajack has also said he does not believe Eley should be executed, according to Eley's written request for clemency to the parole board.
It's not unusual for judges or prosecutors to change their minds about individual cases or the death penalty itself, but the on-the-record testimony on behalf of a condemned inmate of the kind given by Van Brocklin is relatively rare.
The three parole board members who supported Eley's plea for mercy said he is not the "worst of the worst" killers, and argue that many similar convenience store robbers who committed more serious crimes escaped death sentences.
They also said the crime wouldn't have happened without Green. And they argued that Eley was a victim of a game by prosecutors as they threatened him with a death sentence to force his testimony against Green.
"The prosecutors 'played a bluff' all the way to the end, and when Eley did not cooperate, they were stuck with the death penalty conviction," the three dissenting members said.
Green, 54, is in prison and scheduled for release in October on charges he illegally carried a concealed weapon, had a gun in a car and possession of drugs. But he also faces the possibility of additional time for violating parole on a prior aggravated robbery conviction, according to state prison records. Those charges are unrelated to the Eley case.
In September, Kasich spared Joseph Murphy from execution for slashing a woman's throat in a 1987 robbery, citing the prisoner's horrific childhood and concerns about Murphy's mental health.
In June, Kasich spared Shawn Hawkins, saying he had no doubt the inmate was involved in a 1989 double killing but that the details of his participation were "frustratingly unclear."