THOMAS J. SHEERAN
CLEVELAND — A serial killer who hid the remains of 11 women in his Cleveland home and yard should be put to death, a jury recommended Wednesday.
Anthony Sowell, 51, was convicted last month of aggravated murder in the deaths of the women, whose remains were unearthed in his home and yard in late 2009.
The same jury that convicted Sowell deliberated for less than a day before deciding to recommend execution by lethal injection over life in prison without the possibility of parole.
The final sentence will be up to Judge Dick Ambrose, who will impose the sentence Friday and is permitted to reduce a death penalty sentence to life without parole.
Sowell, with his hands cuffed to manacles chained around his waist, stood ramrod straight, blinking rapidly and rocking lightly on his heels as the verdicts were read. As the final verdicts were read, his eyes narrowed and his eyebrows began to twitch.
Relatives of the victims seated in the court sobbed quietly and hugged each other. One woman in the front row sat with her hands folded in prayer.
Someone shouted “ha ha,” and the group applauded with their hands above their heads as Sowell was led from the courtroom. He turned to the families in the public gallery and made a stiff bow before he was led away.
Some family members of the victims had pushed for a plea deal that would have allowed Sowell to get a life sentence and the victims to avoid the emotional ordeal of a trial.
Assistant Prosecutor Richard Bombik said he understood, but disagreed with, those concerns.
“This was a story that had to be told. You can’t sweep the facts of this case, the atrocities of this case, under the carpet by means of a plea,” he said “You can’t do that. It has to be told.”
One of Sowell’s two defense attorneys, Rufus Sims, declined to characterize his client’s response to the sentencing recommendation.
“We move on to the next phase,” he said.
During the sentencing phase, Sowell’s attorneys had tried to humanize him with a series of witnesses who painted him as growing up in a deeply troubled home. A mental health expert hired by the defense told jurors that Sowell suffers from several mental illnesses.
Defense attorney John Parker had said Sowell deserved to live because of his troubled childhood in an abusive home, his service in the Marine Corps, his job history and his good behavior while serving 15 years in prison for attempted rape.
Prosecutors countered with mental health experts who said Sowell had normal brain function.
Assistant prosecutor Pinkey Carr said Sowell deserved to die for his crimes and responded to comments about his mental condition by saying, “He’s crazy like a fox. He’s evil.”
The women began disappearing in 2007, and prosecutors say Sowell lured them to his home with the promise of alcohol or drugs. Police discovered the first two bodies and a freshly dug grave in late 2009 after officers went to investigate a woman’s report that she had been raped there.
Many of the women found in Sowell’s home had been missing for weeks or months, and some had criminal records. They were disposed of in garbage bags and plastic sheets, then dumped in various parts of the house and yard. All that remained of one victim, Leshanda Long, was her skull, which was found in a bucket in the basement.
Most of the victims were nude from the waist down, were strangled with household objects and had traces of cocaine or depressants in their systems. All the victims were black, as is Sowell.
Sowell was convicted of 82 counts, including aggravated murder, rape, attempted murder and kidnapping, for the 11 murders and attacks on three women who survived.
The jurors sat through weeks of disturbing and emotional testimony before convicting Sowell. They saw photographs of the victims’ blackened, skeletal corpses lying on autopsy tables and listened to police describe how their bodies had been left to rot around Sowell’s home.
During the trial, several women gave grueling testimony about attacks by Sowell, telling the court how they had escaped. One woman, who said she was brutally raped by Sowell, testified that she had seen a headless body in his home.
Prosecutors also showed an eight-hour taped interrogation of Sowell after he was arrested.
During the interrogation, Sowell let out a cry of anguish and buried his head in his hands as two detectives pressed him to explain how the bodies ended up in his house in a drug-ridden neighborhood on the east side of town.
“It had to be me,” Sowell said in the video, rubbing his head with his hands. “I can’t describe nobody. I cannot do it. I don’t know. But I’m trying to.”
In the sentencing phase, Sowell made his first detailed public comments. The prosecution wasn’t allowed to cross-examine him, leaving unanswered the question of why he attacked the women.
“The only thing I want to say is I’m sorry,” Sowell told the jury. “I know that might not sound like much, but I truly am sorry from the bottom of my heart.”
He also said he didn’t know what happened and couldn’t explain it.
“I know it’s not a lot, but that’s all I can give you,” he said.
A mental health expert hired by the defense told jurors that Sowell suffers from a number of mental illnesses, including obsessive compulsive disorder and post-traumatic stress disorder that results from abuse he sustained during childhood. Dr. George Woods testified that Sowell grew up in a family that had a history of physical abuse that went back for generations and diagnosed him with unspecified psychoses and an unspecified cognitive disorder.
Defense attorneys also suggested an untreated 2007 heart attack or head injury might have caused Sowell’s mental health problems.
A social worker, Lori James-Townes, testified for the defense that Sowell had an “extremely horrible” childhood marked by abuse and an absent father and saw nieces whipped almost daily, adding up to a home environment that “had a horrific cumulative effect” on him. She narrated a family tree going back generations that included sexual abuse, absent fathers, health problems, drug abuse and mental illness.
Some of the witnesses, however, seemed to hurt Sowell’s bid for mercy.
Sowell’s half-sister appealed to the jury to save his life but admitted during cross-examination that he sometimes got angry and once assaulted a girl who had acted aggressively toward her.
A niece who testified about their troubled home life said Sowell repeatedly raped her when she was 10 years old and he was 11.
The jury also heard during the sentencing phase that Sowell had a prior sexual-assault conviction in 1989 for attempted rape, for which he was incarcerated until 2005. Any mention of it was withheld during the trial to avoid prejudicing jurors.