State, Defense Debate Credibility Of Hypnotized Witnesses
September 10, 2002 at 4:40 PM EST - Updated August 2 at 5:13 AM
By CARRIE SPENCER, Associated Press Writer
COLUMBUS, Ohio (AP) - A man convicted of kidnapping and strangling an 11-year-old girl should not be executed because testimony against him was obtained from witnesses who had been hypnotized, his attorneys said.
Defense lawyers asked the Ohio Adult Parole Board on Tuesday to recommend clemency for Robert A. Buell, 62, who is scheduled to be executed by injection on Sept. 25. Buell did not attend the clemency hearing.
Buell's spiritual adviser, Pastor Ernie Sanders, told the board that for the past 10 years Buell has maintained his innocence and Sanders believes him.
Sanders said he "wouldn't lift one little finger to save" Buell if he thought he killed the girl.
Prosecutors said Tuesday that it was physical evidence, not the descriptions from the hypnotized witnesses, that convicted Buell. They said appeals courts already have considered and rejected arguments that the hypnotized witnesses were unreliable.
"It was this unrefuted physical evidence that convicted Robert Buell," said Wayne County Prosecutor Martin Frantz.
Buell, a former worker for the city of Akron, was convicted in 1984 in the death of Krista Lee Harrison, of Marshallville in neighboring Wayne County.
Harrison was kidnapped from a park across the street from her home on July 17, 1982. Investigators said she was sexually assaulted before she was strangled. Her body was found six days later.
Krista's parents testified that Buell should not be granted clemency.
"I can't begin to think what went through Krista's young mind when Buell took her. For 20 years, we have been haunted by thoughts of how horrific her death was," said Shirley Harrison as she read from a statement after taking over for her husband, Gerald, who became choked up with emotion after reading a sentence.
"My daughter didn't deserve to die," she said. "What was Buell doing in that park? Preying on children. He deserves to die."
Wayne County investigators used hypnosis to obtain witness statements, including that of a boy with Harrison in the park who described Buell's van. Investigators used the technique to help witnesses recall more details.
But information about the hypnosis was withheld from defense attorneys, said Jeffry Kelleher, Buell's attorney since late 1995.
"There's still a question of whether he's guilty," the Cleveland-based attorney said Monday. "Secondly, and no less important, was he denied every American's right, which is a fair trial?"
Wayne County also used hypnosis while investigating a similar abduction, rape and killing of a 12-year-old girl, nine months before Harrison's death. The convictions of two men in that case were overturned after witnesses recanted their testimony, Kelleher said.
"The events in those cases bolster our claim that their subsequent use of hypnotized testimony casts a lot of doubt," he said.
Videotapes of the hypnosis sessions in both cases have been lost or destroyed, he said.
The two convictions were overturned in the earlier case not only because of the recanted testimony but because new evidence linked the crime to Buell, prosecutors said in a 31-page petition Attorney General Betty Montgomery's office filed Monday with the parole board. Buell was not charged in that case.
In Buell's case, witnesses were hypnotized more than a year before his arrest, so it would have been impossible for investigators to plant a suggestion pointing to him, prosecutors said.
Federal appeals courts in 1999 denied that use of hypnosis violated Buell's rights, the state's petition said.
Raymond Capots, chairman of the parole board, said he hopes the board will make a recommendation Monday.
Upon receiving the board's recommendation, Gov. Bob Taft can reduce Buell's sentence to life in prison or allow the execution to proceed. Four executions have taken place since Taft took office in 1999.
Buell came close to dying in January 1996. He was served his final meal and awaited a court decision until 17 minutes after the scheduled execution, when a stay was upheld, allowing his federal appeals to continue.
(Copyright 2002 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)