Death-penalty trial could have ended same way by plea-bargain offer

Jack Welninski, left, and Kevin Nill, right.
Jack Welninski, left, and Kevin Nill, right.

A nine-day death penalty trial ended last week in Warren County with the same result it could have if prosecutors had accepted the plea bargain offered almost a month before by the defense.

On March 12, Judge Donald Oda II sentenced Jack Welninski, 34, to life in prison without parole for murdering his cellmate, a Miami County man close to getting out of prison, in April 2018 at Lebanon Correctional Institution.

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Warren County Prosecutor David Fornshell pointed to the jury recommendation for a death sentence, when asked if he had any second thoughts about moving forward with the trial, in light of the result.

“Absolutely not. 12 jurors unanimously agreed,” Fornshell said in an email response.

Even before strangling Kevin, Nill, 40, of Piqua - little more than an hour after they were put together - Welninski was almost certain to die in prison for his prior crimes.

On Feb. 10, his lawyers offered to have Welninski plead guilty in exchange for an agreed-upon sentence of life without parole - exactly what Oda ultimately ordered on March 12.

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The sentence was the judge’s lesser option to the death penalty recommended by the jury, culled from more than 200 residents called for the two-day jury selection process beginning the trial.

The trial was held as Ohio lawmakers and Gov. Mike DeWine considered abolishing the death penalty, in part due to problems obtaining drugs used in executions.

Fornshell gave three reasons why his office decided to move ahead.

“First, because of the defendant’s extensive violent history, both inside and outside the prison,” the prosecutor said.

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Welninski used a bandage intended to immobilize his broken arm to strangle to death Nill, who was serving a short prison sentence for attempted domestic violence and close to getting out of prison.

According to testimony, Welninski murdered Nill out of the mistaken belief that he was a child molester and as a way to get moved out of the prison outside to the state’s newer, highest-security facility.

Before killing Nill, Welninski was to remain in prison until 2112 for attempted murder of a police officer, felonious assault, carrying a concealed weapon and possession of a firearm in a liquor establishment in Wood County.

“Second, because of his complete indifference to human life, as demonstrated by his interview with law-enforcement just after brutally killing Mr. Nill,” Fornshell continued.

Afterward Welninski joked and suggested he hoped to score Nill’s food tray by delaying discovery of the murder.

Welninski also stomped on Nill’s throat, Assistant County Prosecutor Steven Knippen reminded the jury in closing arguments.

Afterward “he was laughing about it and he was making jokes,” Knippen said in closing statement..

Fornshell concluded: “Third, even before he brutally killed Mr. Nill, the defendant already was not eligible to be released from prison until he’s approximately 100 years old. Therefore, anything short of the death penalty certainly felt to us like the defendant would essentially get a ‘free kill’”

On March 12, Welninski stood, despite extensive shackling and security measures, and apologized to his and Nill’s family and took responsibility for the brutal slaying.

“I did all that,” said Welninski, who also thanked the judge for his treatment during the trial.

Oda asked the inmate why he cared whether he lived behind bars or died.

Welninski said most people are unable to understand prison culture and noted the status of the death penalty being carried out in Ohio.

“It’s probably not going to happen anytime soon,” he said.

Oda, who has ordered the death penalty in other cases, described the murder, shortly after Welninski was taken from a solitary cell on suicide watch and put with Nill. The judge noted the bandage was so tight around Nill’s neck, prison officials called to the cell had trouble cutting it off.

The judge described the conditions in the prison, one of two outside Lebanon, as “intolerable.”

Oda said Welninski’s dysfunctional childhood and the level of violence inside prison were mitigating factors in his decision.

“This is an institutional failure,” lawyer John Kaspar said in his closing argument. “If Jack is guilty so to is the State of Ohio, so to is Lebanon Correctional Facility.”

The judge also noted Welninski testified under oath and cross-examination and was respectful during the trial, contrary to concerns that led him to be watched by up to seven guards .

On the other hand, Oda said Welninski was likely to kill again “if he needs to or wants to.”

“He will live the rest of his days in prison,” Oda said.

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