Anthony Sowell could address jurors for the first time today about why he should be spared the death penalty.
Ohio and many states give a defendant facing death row the opportunity to make an unsworn statement on why his life should be spared during the sentencing phase of a capital murder case. It's then up to the jury to decide whether to recommend death or, in the case of Sowell, life in prison without possibility of parole.
Sowell's right to testify unimpeded during the sentencing phase
of his trial may seem like the antithesis of courtroom convention. Prosecutors will not be able to cross-examine him or question why he did not testify under oath during the trial itself.
The provision granting him such broad latitude to speak became Ohio law in 1981, legal experts said.
"Because this is an extraordinary penalty someone is facing, they're given extraordinary rights," said Amy Borror of the Ohio Public Defender's Office.
Sowell, 51, was found guilty last month of killing 11 women
whose remains were found in and around his Cleveland home in 2009. He was convicted of 82 counts, including aggravated murder, abusing a corpse and tampering with evidence.
Cuyahoga County Common Pleas Judge Dick Ambrose can sentence Sowell to death only if all 12 jurors recommend such a sentence
. Ambrose could overrule that recommendation and sentence Sowell to life in prison.
The law that gives Sowell a chance to make an unsworn statement has evolved. After its inception, the Ohio Supreme Court imposed restrictions on what prosecutors can say in response. The prosecution not only can't cross-examine Sowell, they can't cast aspersions about his statement simply because it was not made under oath.
Legal experts say it's unclear whether unsworn statements sway juries. Defendants may maintain innocence, express remorse or try to explain a lifetime of factors that led them down a dark path.
Sowell's attorneys have tried during the sentencing phase to humanize their client, portraying him as a conscientious worker, a model prisoner and either a victim of or witness to horrific abuse as a child. Prosecutors have countered with the testimony of a relative of Sowell's who said that he raped her almost daily for the two years she lived in Sowell's household when they were children.
Because the evidence against Sowell is so overwhelming, law professor Lewis Katz of Case Western Reserve University said he doubted Sowell's statement would have much impact on sentencing.
"There's little he can help them understand except for his screwed-up mental condition,"
Nonetheless, it's important for jurors to hear from Sowell after weeks of silence during the trial phase, said Margery Koosed, a University of Akron law professor who specializes in death penalty litigation cases.
"You want to be in a position to hear the defendant's response," she said. "I think you have the jury appreciating that they have a human being before them."