In rare death row clemency, Ohio governor spares killer, citing rulings, medical testimony

COLUMBUS, Ohio (AP) — In a rare gesture, Gov. Ted Strickland on Friday spared an inmate who was scheduled to be executed next week, citing court decisions that questioned the death sentence and problems with trial testimony.

Strickland announced he was granting clemency to Richard Nields, who strangled his girlfriend in 1997 during an argument in suburban Cincinnati.

Strickland said he made the decision after reviewing Nields' case, previous court rulings and last month's recommendation by the Ohio Parole Board that Nields be spared.

"Based on this review, I concur with the rationale and recommendation of the Ohio Parole Board majority," Strickland said.

The state has executed 14 men since Strickland, a Democrat, took office in 2007. He has spared three inmates, including Nields.

Nields' attorneys applauded Friday's decision.

"A death sentence should be reserved for the worst of the worst cases," said federal public defender Carol Wright. "The facts of Richard's case were never the worst of the worst."

Hamilton County Prosecutor Joe Deters said he was disappointed but acknowledged Strickland's authority to spare Nields.

Dr. Paul Shrode, then training in a medical fellowship at the Hamilton County coroner's office, testified at Nields' 1997 trial that bruising on the victim proved Nields beat his girlfriend, Patricia Newsome, then returned 15 minutes later to strangle her.

But the deputy coroner who supervised Shrode at the time told the parole board that Shrode's conclusions were not supported by science. Dr. Robert Pfalzgraf, then a deputy coroner, said there was no scientific evidence to support how old the bruises on Newsome's body were.

Nields' attorneys argued that Shrode, a recent medical school graduate who had not yet completed his coroner's fellowship, was not as experienced as Pfalzgraf but was chosen by prosecutors over Pfalzgraf to testify at trial.

Juries in Ohio must find offenders guilty of a serious secondary offense — such as rape, arson or aggravated robbery — in addition to aggravated murder to recommend a death sentence.

Nields was convicted of aggravated robbery for taking Newsome's car and money from her purse. But the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals questioned whether those acts supported the robbery charge and said his death sentence barely fit the definition of capital punishment under Ohio law.

The parole board also cited a judge's dissent in a 2001 decision by the Ohio Supreme Court that upheld Nields' death sentence.

Justice Paul Pfeifer, who helped write Ohio's death penalty law as a state legislator in 1981, wrote that Nields' crime was not what lawmakers considered as a case eligible for the death penalty when creating the law.

"This case is not about robbery," Pfeifer wrote. "It is about alcoholism, rage and rejection and about Nields' inability to cope with any of them."