Re-examining Lucasville: Essay 5

By Staughton Lynd

Representation on behalf of the five Lucasville defendants condemned to death has been frustrated by the prosecution’s unwillingness to turn over to lawyers for the defense the records of its own interviews with potential witnesses.

Finally, during the winter of 2011-2012, lawyers for four of the five capital defendants won the right to see summaries and transcripts of investigators’ interviews (for the most part conducted by officers of the Ohio State Highway Patrol) with Lucasville prisoners.

The labor of collecting and evaluating this material has barely begun. What this, and the several following essays, will report is what can be concluded at this time as to each of the ten murders and the case against each of the five capital defendants.

The Death Squad

All the murders during the eleven days were horrific, inasmuch as they were to some degree premeditated, and were carried out against unarmed and helpless victims. But the murders in the very first hours of the disturbance on the afternoon of Sunday, April 11, are among the most troubling. A group of prisoners that came to be known as the “death squad” went from cell to cell in L-6, dragged individual prisoners from their cells, injured some of them, and killed five: Darrell Depina, Franklin Farrell, Albert Staiano, William Svette, and Bruce Vitale. These homicides are also among the most puzzling.

L-6 was a block in which many Sunni Muslims were confined at the time of the rebellion. During the rebellion it was used to house hostage officers, who were blindfolded and initially placed in one of the L-6 showers. Prisoners guarded the officers to make sure they were not harmed. L-6 was also used to house a number of individual prisoners who were suspected of being “snitches” for the SOCF administration.

Amid the chaos of the first moments of the uprising, Muslim leaders directed that several of these potential victims should be locked in individual cells for their own protection. Under the circumstances, these arrangements were relatively farsighted and humane. The puzzle is how a situation that appears to have been initially intended to protect life came to be transformed into a situation that made the vulnerable suspects easy targets for their killers.

A prisoner named James Edinburgh (or, in some records, Edinbaugh) celled in L-3, directly across the corridor from L-6. He described to the Highway Patrol how some of the eventual victims of the death squad were chosen. He said that after the uprising began, he and other prisoners were ordered by insurgents to move out of their cells into the L-corridor. He sat there, with Depina and Vitale nearby. Three prisoners, whom he named (and who did not include LaMar), came out of L-6 into the corridor of L-block and ordered Depina and Vitale inside. Interview #1105, Tape #A-168, conducted by Trooper Fleming on December 2, 1993.

The next question, of course, is what happened in L-6 after the men were locked up there?

Keith LaMar (Bomani Shakur)

The prosecution decided that the death squad had been coordinated by Keith LaMar (Exhibit 1 – to be added later). LaMar was indicted for several aggravated murders in the summer of 1994, went on trial in June 1995, was found guilty, and sentenced to death. As he went through this ordeal, he decided to adopt the name Bomani Shakur, Swahili for “thankful, mighty warrior.”

LaMar has written a booklet about his experience entitled Condemned. In it he tells us that on April 11, 1993, he “was 23 years old, serving my fourth year on an 18 year-life sentence for murder.” When he woke up that morning in his cell in L-6, LaMar continues, he had no idea that the Muslims were having problems with the administration about the proposed method of testing for TB, and were planning a protest.

Around 12:30 p.m., LaMar joined three or four hundred other prisoners in the recreation yard. He spent the next couple of hours jogging. About 2:45 p.m., “the warning alarm sounded to alert us that it was time to start lining up to reenter the building.”

As LaMar waited in line, a correctional officer came running out of the building with blood streaming down his face, followed by a masked prisoner screaming, “We taking over!”

A few minutes later, several more masked prisoners appeared on the yard and announced that L-block was now under their control.

Like many other prisoners on the rec yard, LaMar was worried whether his personal property was secure. He decided to go back into L-block and check on it.

When he reached his cell he found that it was being used to hold an “inmate hostage.” Impulsively”, he says, “I ran up to the control panel with intentions of releasing this individual from my cell, and not really understanding how to operate the panel, inadvertently opened several of the adjoining cells which were also being used as holding cells. Seeing this, the individual previously operating the panel screamed to me to leave the pod, and I was escorted out to speak with one of the leaders who very briefly explained what was going on. I was then given two options, to leave or to stay and join the rebellion. I chose to leave. I was back on the yard by 3:30 p.m. . . . ”

For all of the above, see LaMar’s book, Condemned, pp. 15-20.

LaMar writes that he was indicted for leading the death squad only after the prosecution had begun to determine which prisoners were prepared to become informants and had assembled many of them at the Oakwood Correctional Institution, which became known as the “Snitch Academy.”

Emanuel Newell was a prisoner who was very nearly killed at the end of the uprising by other prisoners and for that reason cannot be viewed as biased in favor of the insurgents. Newell has described life for the potential prosecution witnesses at Oakwood. Cell doors were left open. Commissary items were available in abundance as were special meals. Agreeing with Newell, prisoner Anthony Walker stated in a deposition that prospective witnesses at Oakwood got all the cigarettes they wanted and that their doors were never locked. Deposition of Anthony Walker, Feb. 3, 2006, LaMar v. Warden, Civ. No 1:04CV00541 (U.S.D.Ct., S.D.Ohio).

Newell also stated under oath that prisoners at Oakwood were encouraged to coordinate their narratives and, on occasion, prosecutors instructed witnesses what they were to say. For instance, according to Newell, if a potential witness at the Snitch Academy described perpetrators who wore masks, “We were advised that because the prosecutors required specific visual identification” we should say that the accused did not wear masks and, moreover, that it was the accused who committed the crimes about which the witness was being questioned. Affidavit of Emanuel Newell, June 4, 2007, paragraphs 6-10.

The prisoner informants at the Snitch Academy did not include the two most important prosecution witnesses against Keith LaMar: Lewis Jones and Stacey Gordon. Jones and Gordon, like key prosecution witnesses in other Lucasville trials (Anthony Lavelle, Rodger Snodgrass, Kenneth Law and Robert Brookover), were “prepared” for trial individually. As we will see, Jones appears to have invented the bizarre theory used by prosecutors to explain LaMar’s alleged behavior. As for Gordon, he may have been the actual foreman of the death squad.

Lewis Jones

On July 27, 1993, Troopers Long and McLemore, as well as Lieutenant James Root of the Highway Patrol Investigative Team, interviewed prisoner Lewis Jones at the Lorain Correctional Institution. Jones’ wife, Kim Jones, and his lawyer, Joel Feld, were also present. Jones claimed that, after the disruption began, he was one of a group of prisoners in the L-block corridor who wanted to go out to the rec yard, but were prevented from doing so by Muslims guarding the door.

According to Jones, the group came up with the idea that if they killed several of the prisoners who had been locked up in L-6 as possible snitches, they would then be permitted to leave L-block. This theory is hard to take seriously. Homicide, even if “only” killing another prisoner in the midst of a prison rebellion, is very likely greatly to extend a perpetrator’s time behind bars and to cause the perpetrator to be segregated from general population for years.

Most of the prisoners who stayed in L-block when the uprising began did not become active participants in the insurgency. Their aim was simply to survive it. Often they sat and slept in the corridor near one or two particular friends, eating and drinking what was available like everyone else, and coping as best they could with the absence of electric light and water. Why would such a person jeopardize hard-earned prison time by indiscriminate murder?

Besides propounding this unlikely explanation for the genesis of the death squad, Jones was one of a very few Lucasville prisoners who confessed to having been a death squad member. Here is Jones’ own account on the stand in LaMar’s trial, Tr. at 406-407.

Q. How did it come to be that you ended up in L6?

A. Well, group of inmates that I were with were talking amongst Muslims with the bullhorn and questions were asked as if we going to L6 and kill all the snitches, can we be let out to the yard . . . .

Q. All right. And so what’s the next thing that happened or the next thing that took place?

A. Well, authorization was given to the guy with the bullhorn and it was transferred back to the guy that was with us who asked the question . . . to the guy.

Q. And what resulted as a result of those verbal exchanges, what took place, where did you go, what took place next?

A. Proceeded into L2 block.

Q. All right. What did you do in L2?

A. This was particularly where guys were masked up, grabbed weapons and different things of that nature.

Q. What kind of weapons were grabbed?

A. Shovels, bats, weight bars.

Q. What did you have?

A. Weight bar.

In the trial of another alleged member of the death squad, Derek Cannon, Jones testified that he had struck Bruce Vitale six or seven times with the weight bar. After he agreed to be a prosecution witness, Lewis Jones was never indicted for anything.

Stacey Gordon

Stacey Gordon was a tall African American and, like Keith LaMar, a boxer. He had been convicted of Aggravated Burglary in the Summit County Court of Common Pleas in October 1989. After the April 1993 uprising, he was indicted in March 1994 for Attempted Murder of prisoner Johnny Fryman, and Felonious Assault on Correctional Officers Conrad Nagel and Kenneth Daniels. By his own admission he was also involved in the murder of prisoner Bruce Harris on the last day of the uprising.

About three months before the Lucasville disturbance, Gordon had become a Muslim. Not long after the disturbance, in the context of plea negotiations with the State and supposedly for religious reasons, Gordon abandoned the Islamic faith. Once immunized by his plea agreement, Gordon made some extraordinary admissions. Gordon was one of three Muslims who planned the takeover of L-block. State v. Grinnell, Tr. at 328.

Gordon was one of three “security amirs”—that is, security commanders or officers–for the Muslims involved in the April 1993 uprising, with special responsibility for security in L-6. (Gordon could have been convicted for complicity in the kidnapping of every officer held in L-6.)

He claimed to be the righthand man of Imam Carlos Sanders. Id. at 327, 330-331, 343.

Sanders directed Gordon to make sure that prisoners did not assault other prisoners.

Sanders didn’t want anyone harmed. Id. at 357-358, 361, 378, Gordon was inside L-6 at the time of the death squad murders. Id. at 318, 365.

He saw and heard the homicides. Id. at 321-324, 367.

As Gordon understood it, the L-6 cells in which “snitches” were confined were not to be opened to let other prisoners come in and kill those people. Id. at 372.

Gordon did nothing to prevent the killing of supposed snitches in L-6 as the murders were being carried out. Id. at 370, 374.

In addition to his own admissions, the statements of several other prisoners point to Gordon as the man who may have engineered the death-squad massacre. In the habeas appeal of the related case of State v. Farocq a.k.a. Grinnell v. Russell, Case No. C-2-97-838, to the United States District Court, Southern District of Ohio, Judge Algenon Marbley summarized as follows the relevant testimony of prisoners Prentice Jackson and Leroy Elmore.

Both men testified that Stacey Gordon entered L-6 with the death squad and directed the prisoners operating the L-6 console to open the doors of the cells where inmate hostages were confined. Prentice Jackson . . . was housed in L-3.

Approximately one and one-half hours after the riot began, he was ordered by unidentified inmates to go to L-6 to get food. . . . Shortly after he entered L-6, a group of men, including Gordon, came to the door and Jackson observed [Grinnell] tell the group they could not come in.

Jackson testified that [Grinnell] was then threatened by Gordon who ordered [Grinnell] to man the console.

Leroy Elmore, who was . . . not housed in the L-Block, entered L-6 out of curiosity approximately twenty minutes after the riot began. When he looked into L-6, he saw Gordon ordering everybody out of the block and Girdy at the control panel. He also saw Gordon threaten [Grinnell] and tell him to work the control panel. He also observed masked people with weapons go to the top of the range.

Opinion and Order, Farocq v. Russell at 23-24, summarizing testimony at the trial of Timothy Grinnell in the Court of Common Pleas, Tr. at 476-478 (Jackson), 521-523 (Elmore).

Significant testimony from other prisoners corroborated the trial testimony of Jackson and Elmore. Reginald Williams, a Muslim prisoner who testified for the prosecution, told Troopers Brink and McGough of the Highway Patrol in Interview #867 on July 15, 1993, that he had seen Stacey Gordon sitting at the L-6 console “letting these guys out” of the cells.

In Interview #871 on July 20, 1993, Tony Taylor, one of the prisoners suspected of snitching and locked up for his own protection, told the Highway Patrol that Stacey Gordon had “come down the range” with the rest of the death squad. Taylor recognized him because Taylor celled in L6-16 on the bottom range and Gordon celled in L-6-57 on the bottom range, directly across from Taylor.

Moreover, Taylor testified that Gordon was not wearing a mask. Gordon, according to Taylor, “helped kill Vitale and Depina.” (Taylor also stated that Gordon was in L-6 on the morning of April 15 when Officer Vallandingham was killed and, in fact, was one of two men who went to the cell on the upper range where Vallandingham was being held and brought him down to the shower, where he was murdered).

Prisoner Edward Julious produced an affidavit that was later filed by Grinnell in a second effort to obtain a new trial:

A prisoner named Stacey Gordon was assistant in charge of security for the Sunni Muslim community on L side.

A prisoner named Timothy Grinnell for a time operated the console in L-6. I heard the imam or prayer leader for the Muslim community, Siddique Abdullah Hasan also known as Carlos Sanders, instruct Mr. Grinnell that certain prisoners were to be locked up in L-6 for their own protection and were not to be harmed.

I witnessed Mr. Gordon enter L-6 with a group of prisoners.

Mr. Gordon ordered Mr. Grinnell to open the doors of the cells in which various prisoners were confined whom Mr. Gordon described as “snitches.”

Mr. Grinnell refused.

Mr. Gordon and his associates left L-6. While he was absent, a prisoner named Eric Girdy replaced Mr. Grinnell at the console.

Mr. Gordon returned and ordered Mr. Girdy to open cell doors. Mr. Girdy did so.

A group that became known as the “death squad” went from cell to cell, beating and killing the prisoners confined there.

Affidavit of Edward Julious, Apr. 17, 2008.

There were additional problems with the theory that Keith LaMar coordinated the death squad. Aaron Jefferson sent a message to prosecutors admitting that it was he who had killed Darrell Depina, and that no other person told him to do it. When he made this confession, he was not even a suspect nor was he a friend of LaMar. He was doing three-to-fifteen years and had no reason to lie. Yet the State failed to indict him.

Perhaps this was because Jefferson was a member of a group called the Black Gangster Disciples, headed by Anthony Lavelle, and Lavelle had become a key prosecution witness.

Furthermore, there were conflicting accounts of the murder of another supposed victim of the death squad, William Svette. Svette was said to have been carried out to the L-corridor while he was still alive. There, according to witness testimony, prisoner Freddie Frakes beat Svette to death. And the State indicted Frakes for murder.

What Did the Prosecution Do?

In summary, a good deal of evidence points to prisoners other than Keith LaMar. and especially to Stacey Gordon as the figure at the center of the death squad massacre. Based on his own admissions and the testimony of other prisoners, even if Gordon did not lead the death squad from cell to cell, he was a principal planner of the uprising and it was he who was responsible for safeguarding hostage prisoners as well as hostage officers.

The evidence suggests that Gordon led the death squad to L-6;that after an initial rebuff he returned with the death squad and was admitted; that he angrily told the men operating the console to open the doors of the cells;and that he then looked on as the members of the death squad did their bloody work.

Gordon was not investigated and prosecuted. Instead, the following occurred.

First, on September 8, 1994, the State dropped the most serious charges against Gordon, reducing his sentence for conduct during the rebellion to three to five years. (Exhibit 2 – to be added later)

Next, that same day Assistant Prosecutor Steve Tolbert took a statement from Gordon in the Court of Common Pleas of Scioto County, transcribed by Court Reporter Deborah S. Adkins.

Tolbert asked Gordon if he knew Keith LaMar. Gordon answered, No.

Then Tolbert asked: “Did you see Keith LaMar in the L-6 block in the early hours of the riot at Lucasville?” Gordon again answered, No.

Thereafter, Gordon testified against LaMar and against the defendants in the other major Lucasville trials.

Lastly, Gordon was released from prison in 2007.

Why Didn’t Counsel for LaMar Use This Information at Trial?

They didn’t use it because they didn’t have it.

LaMar’s prosecutor, Seth Tieger, declined to give defense counsel the transcripts of interviews conducted by the State with more than forty men who had been in L-6 during the afternoon of April 11. Instead, Tieger proffered two separate lists to the judge in the trial court.

The first list contained very brief summaries of the Highway Patrol interviews but deleted the names of the prisoner who were interviewed.

The second list contained the names of forty-three prisoners who had been interviewed but not what they had said.

It was left to LaMar’s lawyers to guess which prisoner had said what.

Whether such withholding of information denied LaMar a fair trial is the main issue in LaMar’s appeal to the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals in Cincinnati.