On a fall day in 1997, Raymond Tibbetts’s wife threatened to kick him out of their Cincinnati home. In a drug-addled fury, he beat her to death with a baseball bat and stabbed her 21 times with kitchen knives. He then stormed into the living room and killed the couple’s ailing landlord, stabbing him a dozen times in the chest and back before fleeing in the man’s car.
Authorities caught up with Tibbetts in a matter of days. He was charged and swiftly convicted in the murder of Judith Crawford, 42, and Fred Hicks, 67, who had recently hired Crawford as a live-in caretaker and allowed the couple to stay with him. When it came time to decide Tibbetts’s punishment, a jury recommended death.
Ross Geiger was Juror No. 2. Like his counterparts, he was at the time, and still is, certain of Tibbetts’s guilt. But as the convicted killer’s case has inched up the appeals ladder over the years, he’s become convinced that he and the other jurors were misled. Now, he’s leading a fight to get Tibbetts off death row.
Geiger, a commercial banker with conservative political views, told the Cincinnati Enquirer on Sunday that he started reexamining the case only recently, when some news articles about capital punishment prompted him to look up documents from Tibbetts’s parole case.
He said he was shocked to read that Tibbetts, now 60, had experienced years of neglect and abuse as a child. A clemency report stated that his parents were alcoholics who routinely locked him and his siblings out of the house. It noted that multiple sets of foster parents had beaten the children, burned them on stoves, left them tied to a single bed overnight and sexually abused them. It said Tibbetts had started using drugs as an early teen.
None of that came up during the trial or sentencing, Geiger told the Enquirer. Jurors heard from a single psychiatrist who offered “mostly anecdotal stories” about the defendant, but no other witnesses were called to testify about his past.
“I was astounded by the amount of material that was available (for the trial) that I never saw,” he said. “There was an obvious breakdown in the system.
“The state had a duty to give me access to the information I needed to make the best decision I could,” he added. “It’s like if you have to take a big test, but you were deprived of the textbook.”
Geiger wrestled over what to do about the revelations. Eventually, he said, he came to believe that he wouldn’t have voted in favor of the death penalty had he seen evidence of Tibbetts’s tortured childhood.
So late last month, with just weeks to go before Tibbetts’s planned execution, Geiger sent a letter to Gov. John Kasich (R) pleading for him commute the sentence to life without parole.
“After reviewing the material, from the perspective of an original juror, I have deep concerns about the trial and the way it transpired,” Geiger wrote, according to the Associated Press.“ This is why I am asking you to be merciful.”
Kasich in early February agreed to postpone the execution until October to give the parole board more time to review the case.
Tibbetts’s attorney praised the move. “Because a juror from the original trial recently revealed flaws in the proceedings, there is now incontrovertible proof that Mr. Tibbetts never would have ended up on death row had the system functioned properly,” Erin Barnhart said in a statement earlier this month.
Prosecutors have contended that Tibbetts got a fair trial. They said his background didn’t insulate him from his horrific crimes, which included stabbing his wife repeatedly after she had died and murdering a man on an oxygen tank. During the appeals process, the state argued that jurors heard sufficient evidence about his life to make an informed decision on whether to send him to death.
“While Tibbetts’s childhood and life may have been rough at times, no jury would find that was enough to overcome the aggravating circumstances of the crime, double murder and Aggravated Robbery, to recommend a sentence other than death,” Assistant Attorney General Holly E. LeClair wrote in a June 2009 filing.
A divided panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit agreed, ruling in 2011 that the brutality of Tibbetts’s crimes would have “completely overwhelmed” any additional mitigating evidence regarding his difficult childhood.
“In nearly every case this board reviews, inmates assert that their poor childhoods, drugs, or some other reason mitigate their actions,” an assistant Hamilton County prosecutor said in a 2017 filing, according to the Associated Press. “The mitigation in this case does not overcome the brutality of these murders.”
But Geiger says that cold calculation is precisely what has troubled him.
In criminal cases where capital punishment is an option, juries are required to balance aggravating factors, which can range from lack of remorse or the horrific nature of a crime, against mitigating factors, which often include things like drug addiction or childhood abuse.
During Tibbetts’s trial, prosecutors painted a rosy picture of Tibbetts’s upbringing, portraying him as a sort of black sheep who let his life spiral out of control, Geiger wrote in a Cleveland.com commentary earlier this month.
“They said Mr. Tibbetts’ placement in foster care was the best thing that ever happened to him,” he wrote, saying that defense attorneys didn’t challenge their assertions. He added that they were told that his siblings had essentially “turned out fine” when in fact clemency documents showed one had committed suicide, one had spent time in prison and a third was homeless.
When jurors considered the evidence during the trial’s penalty phase, they decided the aggravating factors outweighed the mitigating factors. The vote in favor of execution was unanimous.
“Mr. Tibbetts’ crimes were terrible, and nothing excuses his guilt,” Geiger wrote in Cleveland.com. “But if I had known all the facts, if the prosecutors had been honest and forthcoming about the horrors he and his siblings experienced in the foster care system, and if we had an accurate understanding of the effects of Mr. Tibbetts’ severe drug and alcohol addiction and his improper opioid prescription, I would have voted for life without parole over death.”
Kasich’s decision to delay the execution until the fall gives the Ohio Parole Board time to consider Geiger’s letter. Last year, the board voted 11-1 to deny clemency to Tibbetts. In early February, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 6th Circuit ruled that his execution could proceed.
Geiger told the Enquirer he remains convinced of Tibbetts’s guilt and said he feels like he made the right decision based on the evidence he was offered at trial. He’s also sympathetic to the victims’ families. But he says the state failed to present a fair case.
“I don’t really view it as changing my mind because the information wasn’t available at the time I was asked to make the decision,” Geiger said. “Based on the information available now, I don’t think justice was served in the case of Tibbetts.”
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