Ohio Supreme Court Justice Maureen O’Connor has ruled Butler County Common Pleas Judge Greg Howard will continue to preside in a quadruple death penalty after finding the county prosecutor’s claims that Howard was biased in the October trial that ended in a hung jury are unfounded.
On Nov. 1, during a hearing in the quadruple West Chester Twp. homicide, Butler County Prosecutor Michael Gmoser asked Howard to recuse himself from the retrial of defendant Gurpreet Singh. Howard declined and Gmoser filed a request of disqualification with the Ohio Supreme Court.
Howard’s attorney Christopher Weber fired back with a 15-page response denying any bias and stating Gmoser’s disagreement with the judge in his rulings in the Singh case “do not provide grounds for disqualification.”
O’Connor agreed with Howard’s attorney stating in the decision Gmoser had not established any behavior in the affidavit submitted that would “require the judge’s disqualification from presiding over retrial.”
O’Connor wrote in the ruling, “Mr. Gmoser has not established that Judge Howard has hostile feelings toward him or his office or that the judge has formed a fixed anticipatory judgment or issue in the underlying case. Nor has Mr. Gmoser set forth a compelling argument for disqualifying Judge Howard to appearance of partiality.”
On Oct. 21, after a three-week trial with nearly two weeks of testimony and 14 hours of deliberation, Howard declared a mistrial in Singh’s trial when the jury indicated it was hung and did not believe any further deliberations would serve a useful purpose. The 40-year-old is accused in the 2019 killing of four of his family members.
Gmoser found fault with Howard’s decisions over replacing jurors and a transcript requested from the deliberating jury. Gmoser also said Howard’s “qualifying bias is manifest in his making demeaning sexual jokes in chambers and failing to conduct the trial with proper courtroom decorum in a capital case.”
Gmoser alleged Howard failed to preserve the record for appeal of possible juror misconduct and demeaned the seriousness of the case by not maintaining proper courtroom decorum.
According to Gmoser, Howard should have removed feuding jurors because that resulted in a hung jury.
Howard declined to replace jurors with alternates knowing two jurors were at odds and not deliberating, the prosecutor said. Gmoser also found fault with Howard’s decision not to give the jury a requested transcript of a DNA expert, but instructed them to rely on their “collective memories” of that testimony.
Gmoser said in the affidavit that Howard made crude jokes in chambers in “mixed” company that were sexual in nature and had an offensive plaque displayed in his chambers.
Weber said in the response, “Every aspect of (Gmoser’s) argument is wrong. Judge Howard does not have any bias toward the petitioner or anyone else in connection with the Singh case.”
Weber pointed out in the response that some “personal attacks” by Gmoser in the affidavit do not warrant disqualification.
In the response, Weber pointed to proper legal procedures followed by Howard when the jury appeared to be hung and the fact that he interviewed all 12 jurors individually in the presence of both a prosecutor and defense attorney to determine if deliberation actually was taking place.
Howard found that although there was tension in the jury room that had been confrontational and emotional at times, there had not been any jury misconduct, Weber wrote in the response.
The plaque in Howard’s courtroom was an inside joke with his staff and was among many items, including photos of his wife and stepdaughters and mementos. The plaque was never in the courtroom and has been removed, Weber said.
O’Connor said the issue is not whether Howard should be disciplined for making offensive remarks or displaying inappropriate signage in chambers. She pointed to Howard’s apology if he ever offended anyone, and noted the remarks and plaque are not evidence of any bias.
Singh is charged with four counts of aggravated murder for allegedly shooting and killing his wife, Shalinderjit Kaur, 39; his in-laws, Hakikat Singh Pannag, 59, and Parmjit Kaur, 62; and his aunt-in-law, Amarjit Kaur, 58, on April 28, 2019, at a West Chester Twp. apartment. He faces the death penalty if found guilty.
Attorneys David Washington and Jeremy Evans, Singh’s new defense team, are scheduled to be back in court Jan. 11 for a pre-trial hearing when a new trial date may be set. They are court-appointed after Singh’s first attorneys withdrew from the case because he can no longer pay them.
Prosecutors said Singh murdered his family by shooting them all in the head after a longtime affair he was having and a strained relationship with his in-laws over money from land owned in India.
The defense said Singh is innocent and the killings were part of a professional hit due to Pannag’s financial woes and a dubious land contract deal in India with the “land mafia.” They say three masked men broke into the apartment with baseball bats and Singh ran for his life. When he returned, everyone was dead.
Read more about the mistrial and Singh’s case at journal-news.com.
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