Judge will not recuse himself from highway slaying case

Warren County Prosecutor David Fornshell filed an affidavit of disqualification Feb. 4 with the Ohio Supreme Court, requesting that Common Pleas Judge Robert Peeler be removed from the three-week trial scheduled for Aug. 3 because he is the uncle of the prosecutor handling the case against Froman in Kentucky.

Froman, 41, of Illinois, is accused of fatally shooting his 34-year-old ex-girlfriend, Elizabeth Kimberly Thomas, and her 17-year-old son on Sept. 12. Because portions of the crime occurred in both Ohio and Kentucky, Froman faces charges, including aggravated murder and kidnapping, in both states.

Fornshell said Peeler’s disqualification is necessary to avoid the appearance of impropriety and to insure the parties’ and the public’s absolute confidence in the fairness of the proceedings.

On Thursday, Peeler filed a response with the state’s highest court stating, “If I felt there was any chance that I could be biased toward either side, I would step aside, even if neither party requested me to do so. I took an oath to faithfully and impartially discharge and perform all my duties. I intend to do so in this case unless the Chief Justice determines that I should not preside over this case.”

Peeler noted in his response that he told prosecutors prior to Froman’s arraignment about his relationship with David Hargrove, the prosecutor in Kentucky.

“In that meeting I explained that I was rarely in contact with Mr. Hargrove. I have had minimal contact with Mr. Hargrove over the past 27 years. My contact with Hargrove over the past 5 years has been brief interactions at one wedding, one funeral and no more that one other brief meeting, ” Peeler said.

Peeler said he also made full disclosure of his relationship with Hargrove in two court hearings Oct. 27 and Nov. 14, and offered to recuse himself from the case if the defendant had any concerns.

“The defense waived any conflict at that time and the state was silent. I assumed the matter was closed,” Peeler said in his response to the Supreme Court.

Fornshell said recent motions have been filed that ask Peeler to rule on procedures to turn over evidence to Kentucky defense counsel, which means the judge will make decisions that could potentially impact his nephew’s case.

“It has always been an issue we are not comfortable with,” Fornshell said during a interview with his newspaper. He added he expressed his concerns to the Judge in chambers with the hope he would recuse himself. “This is not an issue with Judge Peeler. It is an issue with the relationship.”

Fornshell said he believes the relationship could be something argued on appeal if Froman is convicted and sentenced to death.

“No matter what happens, we as prosecutors in the case know we have done everything we can do to flesh out this issue and nobody can accuse us of home cookin’,” Fornshell said.

Peeler declined comment and defense attorney Melynda Cook could not be reached for comment.

Ohio Supreme Court Chief Justice Maureen O’Connor will rule on the prosecution’s request, according to Bret Crow, public information director for the court.

Froman, who is being held without bond at the Warren County Jail, is facing the death penalty in Ohio if convicted of aggravated murder, two counts of kidnapping and discharging a firearm on prohibited premises, for the Sept. 12 fatal shooting of his ex-girlfriend in his SUV on Interstate 75 outside of Middletown. He was also indicted by a Graves County, Ky., grand jury on Oct. 9 for aggravated murder with capital specifications, kidnapping, burglary and tampering with evidence.

Froman is accused of going to Thomas’ Mayfield, Ky., home and fatally shooting her 17-year-old son, Michael “Eli” Mohney, at close range. Froman was spotted at one point forcing Thomas into his white SUV at a convenience store near Paducah, Ky., according to police.

Authorities tracked Froman and Thomas using Froman’s cell phone. State troopers in Ohio spotted Froman’s SUV just before 1 p.m. and pulled him over about 20 minutes later, according to authorities.