More than 200 prospective jurors are expected to gather today in Lebanon to begin a two-week death penalty case, although Ohio lawmakers are discussing the end of capital punishment and the defendant offered to forgo the trial and accept a sentence of life in prison without parole.
Execution is the only more serious punishment Jack Welninski, 34, the prison inmate on trial, could be sentenced to if found guilty of the capital murder charge against him.
Prosecutors rejected the plea offer from Welninski, accused in the case of murdering of Kevin Nill, 40, of Piqua, less than an hour after they were put together in a cell at Lebanon Correctional Institution in April 2018.
Welninski allegedly used a bandage intended to immobilize a broken arm to strangle to death Nill, who was serving a short prison sentence for attempted domestic violence.
The decision to reject Welninski’s plea offer was made although Lt. Sean Embleton, who oversees courthouse security in Warren County, expressed concerns about Welninski getting violent or attempting escape after studying the layout of the system in Lebanon.
“I worry about the length of the trial,” Embleton said during a Feb. 12 hearing. “We will be a step behind whatever he does.”
Welninski will be guarded by four special officers from the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction (ODRC) and up to three sheriff’s deputies during the trial.
This is only an example of the multiple precautions and special steps that come into play in death-penalty cases, especially those involving prison inmates.
Executions are on hold in Ohio, while the state looks for a new method. Drugs previously used are hard, if not impossible, to get. Gov. Mike DeWine has expressed opposition to resuming executions since a federal judge found part of the injection method inhumane.
“Ohio is not going to execute someone under my watch when a federal judge has found it to be cruel and unusual punishment,” DeWine said last year.
In addition, Ohio Speaker of the House Larry Householder expressed questions about the cost of the death penalty, as well as problems finding the drugs used in executions.
Ohio’s last execution was in July 2018.
Noting the upcoming trial, Warren County Prosecutor David Fornshell declined to comment on his decision to reject Welninski’s plea offer and avoid the two-week trial, during which several other inmates are to be brought to the courthouse in Lebanon, furthering challenging those in charge of security.
If convicted on the capital charge, Welninski - already expected to remain in prison until Nov. 22, 2112 - could be sentenced to 20, 25 or 30 to life in prison, as well as life without parole and the death penalty.
Last week, Judge Donald Oda II ordered Welninski’s prison transport team to dress in their “concealed carry uniform,” and remove their hats while in the courtroom.
“The court finds this to be more reasonable under the circumstances,” Oda said in one of the orders issued in response to more than 60 motions filed in the case.
Welninski’s lawyers had urged Oda to take steps to prevent from prejudicing the jury against Welninski. His restraints are to be kept from the jury and he will be dressed in street clothes, rather than those worn by inmates state’s highest-security prison, the Ohio State Penitentiary in Youngstown.
Welninski already is unlikely to ever leave prison. He is already scheduled to serve more 92 years in prison 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.
In addition to the crimes that put him in prison and Nill’s alleged murder, Welninski, a member of a prison gang, used a sharpened toothbrush to stab another inmate and assaulted guards, a prison official testified during the Feb. 12 hearing.
In addition, although held in the state’s supermax prison, Welninski had obtained and used razor blades in a suicide attempt, Jay DeBold, regional special operations commander for the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation & Correction.
Oda told Welninski he was leaning toward reducing the security precautions “until you give me a reason not to.”
The trial is scheduled to begin at 9 a.m. Monday.
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