Billy Slagle, when all is said and done, will cut the most tragic figure. His story is ripe for a Shakespearean tragedy 1 or at the very least a documentary with a most somber soundtrack. Consider the evidence:
1. He was sentenced to death for a crime he committed at 18, when there was no option for LWPOR 2
2. The chief prosecutor for Ohio, Ted McGinty, recommended to the parole board that he shouldn’t be executed, which is pretty extraordinary.
3. In yet another surprising twist, given that parole boards and Governors usually do whatever prosecutors tell them to, both the board and the Governor’s office rejected his plea for clemency and continued on with the death sentence.
4. Three days before his scheduled execution, early Sunday morning, Slagle said “enough” and hung himself. 44 years old, having spent the last 26 years in jail, he took his own way out.
5. And then this. This that will just break your heart. This, this missive of reprieve that arrives too late or never arrives. This message of hope that, but for a series of harmless and innocuous actions would’ve gotten there in time, but didn’t.
On Friday, when Billy was alive and McGinty still didn’t want him executed, his lawyers received a phone call:
Timothy McGinty called Wilhelm with a revelation: County prosecutors had offered Slagle a plea deal at his original trial 26 years ago. If he pleaded guilty, he would serve 30 years and be eligible for parole. However, Slagle’s attorneys at the time did not inform him of the deal; instead, he received the death penalty.
Jaw: meet floor. There is nothing in this business as unconscionable as not informing the client that the state has made an offer. There is nothing as unforgiveable as doing it in a capital case where the client is facing the death penalty.
Embodied in Lafler v. Cooper 3 is the principle that every person has the right to a competent lawyer giving competent advice at all stages of a criminal proceeding. This includes the right to know of any offers and be given competent, reliable advice about what to do with that offer.
Not telling your death-eligible client about a 30 year offer is not one of those “eh-maybe-if-I-feel-like-it” things.
And no one told Billy Slagle. No one told Billy Slagle of it 26 years ago and no one told Billy Slagle of it on Friday. Or Saturday. Or Sunday.
Billy Slagle died without ever knowing that he was offered a plea deal of 30 years. Billy Slagle died without ever knowing that there was a good chance that he’d have to hang on for just another four, or ten. Not forever. Not the sweet nothing of the hereafter. There was light at the end of the tunnel. Unfortunately for Billy, it was a different light and a different tunnel.
I don’t blame his lawyers 4. They were busy doing what they should have been doing: lawyering.
Werneke and Wilhelm hurriedly prepared an appeal and a request to halt the execution, to be filed yesterday with the Supreme Court. They did not try to reach Slagle, thinking they did not have access to him on Death Row over the weekend.
JoEllen Smith of the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction said Slagle’s attorneys could have contacted him over the weekend in an emergency situation by calling his case manager’s cellphone or the prison.
Coulda, shoulda, woulda. Except Billy is dead and Werneke and Wilhelm are dying on the inside. This is worse than Sharon Keller. Keller was a judge. Ostensibly a mean, pro-death penalty judge.
Werneke and Wilhelm are devotees to the cause of abolition. They work their lives to prevent the State from putting people to death. They have given up so much, like so many others, to this fight. They fight in the dark, handcuffed and they don’t give up. To have this happen to a defense lawyer is nearly as bad as what happened to Slagle 5.
Why didn’t they call him? Why didn’t they go see him? I don’t know. Maybe Billy was never the type to commit suicide. Until he did. Maybe, they thought, Billy we’ll surprise him with this on Monday. Maybe. Who’d think a person would kill himself days before an execution.
We’ll never know. And neither will Billy.
This is why the business of death is a tragedy.