CLEVELAND – Defense attorneys are trying to spare the life of an ex-Marine convicted of killing 11 women by painting him as someone who suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder and other mental illnesses.
The sentencing phase of trial begins on Monday for Anthony Sowell, a sex offender who was found guilty July 22 of murdering the women and abusing their corpses, which were hidden in his home and buried in his backyard.
The jury, which sat through weeks of disturbing and emotional testimony, saw photographs of the victims' blackened, skeletal corpses lying on autopsy tables and listened to police describe how their bodies had been left to rot in a home that smelled so bad neighbors complained — believing the source of the stench was rotting meat from a nearby sausage shop.
Now the defense wants to convince jurors that Sowell, who exhibited little emotion during the trial, was mentally ill and doesn't deserve to die. If the jurors don't decide on the death penalty, Sowell faces life in prison without the possibility of parole.
Psychologist and retired police captain Mary Myers, who teaches a University of Akron course on profiling serial killers, said she doesn't see how the jurors "will buy that he truly has an impulse control problem that allows him to snap."
"I think they are going to see that he knew exactly what he was doing, just like he sat there in that courtroom and didn't show any emotion whatsoever," she said.
Sowell, 51, had pleaded not guilty to killing the women, many of whom had been missing for weeks or months before their remains were found in plastic sheets and garbage bags dumped in various parts of the house and yard.
The women began disappearing in 2007, and prosecutors say Sowell lured them to his Cleveland home with the promise of alcohol or drugs. Police discovered the first two bodies and a freshly dug grave in late 2009 after officers went to investigate a woman's report that she had been raped there.
The defense has claimed in a report prepared by a mental health expert that Sowell suffers from several mental illnesses, including severe obsessive compulsive disorder with sexual obsessions, psychosis, cognitive disorder and post-traumatic stress disorder. In the report, which was provided to the prosecution July 11, the defense also cited Sowell's addiction to crack cocaine.
The fact that Sowell didn't plead not guilty by reason of insanity doesn't bar the defense from using mental illness to explain his actions, said Elizabeth Kelley, a defense attorney who isn't connected to the case. Sowell may have decided against an insanity plea to avoid the stigma of mental illness, she said.
"You could very well say, 'Look, if this guy had 11 bodies found in his house, he has bigger problems than the stigma of mental illness,'" Kelley said.
Sowell's description of "blackouts" and hearing a "voice" in a videotaped police interrogation — which was played for the jury — has "all of the hallmarks of someone suffering from paranoid schizophrenia," Kelley said.
Sowell told detectives during the interrogation that he heard a voice that told him not to go into a third-floor bedroom, where two bodies were found, and he described "nightmares" in which he would hurt women with his hands. He said the blackouts sometimes happened when he was being visited by a woman who reminded him of his ex-girlfriend — and when he came out of the blackout, the woman would have disappeared.
"Reminded me of my girl, that's the best I can tell you. It was like everything's cool, she was spending the night or something," Sowell said on the video. "And I'd be like, 'Damn, where'd you go?'"
Sowell may take the witness stand and provide an unsworn statement, guided by questions from his defense attorneys. He will not be subject to cross-examination by prosecutors.
In another bid to spare Sowell's life, the defense also asked that the judge's instructions to the jury in the sentencing phase include consideration of mercy.
"Jurors are always free to extend mercy and no state can deny them that, because they cannot be forced to sentence a defendant to death just because he is death-eligible," the defense told the judge in a legal brief filed after Sowell's conviction.
The defense also plans to revisit a notion that defense attorney John Parker floated during cross-examination: that Sowell's behavior deteriorated dramatically after he had a pacemaker installed in 2007, after an apparent heart attack. A physician hired by the defense, Dr. George Woods, said in a court motion filed May 29 that the defense needed more time to understand Sowell's "mental state before his cardiac deterioration." Perhaps to bolster that claim, the defense has said it also will call a cardiologist from Cleveland Clinic to the stand.
The defense team's witness list for the sentencing phase also includes representatives from the U.S. Marine Corps, where Sowell was a rifle sharpshooter and won two good-conduct medals during stints in Cherry Point, N.C., Okinawa, Japan, and Camp Pendleton, Calif., in the 1980s.
The list also includes representatives from the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction. During Sowell's 15-year incarceration for an attempted rape in 1989, he earned excellent grades for his attitude, initiative and dependability at his kitchen job. An inmate evaluation report sent to the parole board in 2003 noted: "Works well w/all staff & where ever needed."
Myers, the psychologist and retired police captain, said Sowell's defense attorneys will try to humanize him as the friendly neighbor Tony with sympathetic testimony from relatives and his childhood teachers. But if they try to portray him as mentally unstable, she said, his even-tempered response in court may already have convinced jurors that he's in full control.
The only time Sowell exhibited much emotion came when the jury had left the courtroom after the verdict was read. Glaring straight into a television camera, Sowell raised his cuffed hands above his head and held them up for a moment as his attorney watched, wide-eyed, before he was led away by sheriff's deputies.
Associated Press writer Meghan Barr contributed to this report.
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