The Shakespearean Death of Billy Slagle

An inmate committed suicide three days before his scheduled execution — and 36 hours after prosecutors discovered shocking new information that might have saved him.
Billy Slagle, imprisoned for the 1987 murder of a babysitter, was never told about the plea deal that could have kept him from death row. (Reuters)

Before he took his own tortured life last month, Billy Slagle had answered to just about everyone he could think of for the crime he had committed a quarter of a century ago. He had explained as best he could the circumstances of it. He had repeatedly apologized and taken responsibility for it. And he had begged forgiveness for it. Now that he is gone, the question at the heart of his tragic life and death is whether the people responsible for his fate, in positions of power and authority, will ever have the courage and integrity to accept their own measure of responsibility for what happened to him and why.

Slagle hanged himself with a belt in his prison cell early on Sunday morning, August 4th, three days before he was scheduled to be executed for the 1987 home-invasion murder of a young woman named Mari Anne Pope. Slagle's death came just weeks after Ohio parole board officials narrowly rejected his final request for clemency -- over the earnest objections of Cuyahoga County prosecutors, who argued for leniency and a life sentence. It came weeks after Gov. John Kasich rejected the profound and numerous mitigating factors of Slagle's case.

Even more dramatically, Slagle's suicide also occurred approximately 36 hours after prosecutors in his case discovered shocking new information that might have precluded his execution. On the Friday before Slagle died, one of the prosecutors involved in his long-ago murder trial disclosed to current prosecutors that a plea deal had been discussed among lawyers before Slagle's trial -- but that Slagle had never been told of a possible deal. Such a revelation, coming from a former prosecutor, almost certainly would have stayed Slagle's execution and likely would have pushed Ohio into granting him clemency.

But just as no one evidently told Billy Slagle about the plea deal 25 years ago, no one was able to get to Slagle in time last month to tell him the news about the plea negotiations and the hope it represented. Thus this story of crime and punishment, of law and order, morphed into a work of Shakespeare: Billy Slagle killed himself for lack of hope, even though hope was careening toward him in the form of this material new information that cast doubt upon the fairness of his trial. 

Slagle's death prompted an internal review by the state's Department of Rehabilitation and Correction, which concluded that the conditions of his confinement at the Chillicothe Correctional Institution were "inadequate" in many respects. Less clear is whether there will ever be a similar investigation into the last-minute revelation of alleged plea deal discussions that some say were never disclosed to a capital defendant -- or, for that matter, why Ohio's governor and parole board were so intent on executing a defendant who, prosecutors say, would not be brought up on capital charges were his crime committed today.

The First Death

The killing of Mari Anne Pope was particularly brutal and senseless. She was stabbed 17 times in her bed, and savagely beaten, in front of two children who were staying with her in her home that night. The children escaped, went to a neighbor's home, and the police were called to the scene. Slagle, barely 18, was caught hiding behind a door in Pope's house and there was never a question of his guilt. He literally had blood on his hands. He was promptly indicted, convicted and sentenced to death -- the whole process took less than eight months. He entered the state's prison system in May 1988. He was 19 years old.

As with many young people driven to violence, Slagle's childhood was terrible. Both parents were alcoholics, Slagle's lawyers recounted during his 2013 parole hearing. When they divorced, Slagle's mother became involved with men who abused him. He was smoking marijuana by the time he was 12 years old. When he dropped out of school his parents didn't even notice. When he was placed into a treatment center as a teenager -- in retrospect, his last best chance -- his family failed to help with his treatment. By the time he stumbled into Pope's house that night, he was drunk, stoned and completely lost.

Some of this information about Slagle's upbringing made it to the jury. But much did not. Jurors weren't told that Slagle's mother sold marijuana or that Slagle repeatedly witnessed violent confrontations between his parents. They weren't told that Slagle starting abusing alcohol at the age of seven or that his parents wrote him off after he left that treatment center (unsuccessfully treated). Even without this additional information, two Ohio Supreme Court Justices, during the first appellate review of Slagle's case, concluded that there were enough mitigating factors here to preclude a death sentence.

It was these mitigating factors, and a new approach to capital cases by the prosecutor with jurisdiction over Slagle's case, that generated yet another wrinkle that makes the story so different and so sad. In the end, even prosecutors believed that Slagle did not merit capital punishment. During Slagle's last clemency hearing, which took place less than one month before his death, Cuyahoga County prosecutor Timothy J. McGinty asked the parole board "to reconsider its recommendation and recommend that the Governor commute Slagle's sentence from death to life without the possibility of parole."

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Andrew Cohen is a contributing editor at The Atlantic. He is a legal analyst for 60 Minutes and CBS Radio News, a fellow at the Brennan Center for Justice, and Commentary Editor at The Marshall Project

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