By Bruce Winges, The Akron Beacon Journal It was a brutal crime.
On New Year’s Eve 2013 two men broke into a Barberton home to try to take a small amount of drugs and money. A father, his teenage son and the boy’s sister were murdered. A woman survived despite being left for dead after being shot and stabbed in the face.
Two brothers were found guilty of the crimes. Michael Hendon, the younger of the two, was sentenced to life in prison after being found mentally unfit to be put to death.
Then came the trial of the older brother, Eric Hendon. He was found guilty of being the “principal offender” in the triple murder.
Jurors had four options for the sentencing phase of the trial: death, life without parole, life with parole possibility after 30 years and life with parole possibility after 25 years. After deliberating seven hours, the jury spared his life, recommending life without parole. That was his sentence handed down by the judge.
It is a fair question. What were the jurors thinking when they decided to spare the life of a principal offender in a triple murder? After all, prosecutors had argued that Eric Hendon rather than his brother was the shooter. Yet both men received the same sentence.
Just as important, it is a question to be answered if we are to maintain our trust in our system of justice.
We are held accountable for our actions by juries of our peers. Our courts are held accountable by our Constitution and a tradition of transparency. We have public trials in our country.
Our court reporter, Stephanie Warsmith, asked for the names of the jurors so she could talk with them about the verdict. Under the First Amendment and case law that has evolved over decades in our courts, you the public and, by extension, we in the press are entitled to that information. It is not unusual to interview jurors after they render a verdict.
We ran into a roadblock from Common Pleas Judge Amy Corrigall Jones. She initially refused to release the names of the jurors, relying upon an Ohio Supreme Court case in which the Beacon Journal successfully sued another Summit County judge to gain access to the names of jurors. In State ex rel. Beacon Journal vs. Bond, the court affirmed the presumption of openness to court proceedings — including access to juror information. Overcoming that presumption is a significant hurdle, and a judge must hold public hearings on the issue.
So in response to Warsmith’s request, Jones sent letters to the jurors telling them that:
• A Beacon Journal reporter had requested their names.
• They were not required to talk about the case with anyone.
• She would hold hearings where they could give reasons why their names should not be released.
That resulted in hearings held over two days where many of the Hendon jurors pleaded to remain anonymous. The Beacon Journal hired a lawyer, Karen Lefton, to represent the public’s interests. Lefton wrote in a legal brief that there is a well-established legal standard to protect the privacy of jurors — usually when their safety is threatened — and that standard was not met. In the end — weeks after the trial left the front pages of the Beacon Journal — Jones agreed that none of the jurors was able to articulate a reason sufficient to overcome the presumption of openness. As required by law, she then released the names.
Why did we go to all that trouble?
We wanted to ask about their thoughts regarding the sentence they recommended for Eric Hendon and their experiences as jurors on a death penalty case. Answering those questions helps us better understand our system of justice.
In the end, public records such as the names of jurors belong to the public, not a judge or any other public servant.