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Judgement day

Jessica Cuffman • Oct 28, 2013 at 9:18 AM

Accused triple murderer Curtis Clinton heads to trial today.

If an Erie County jury finds him guilty of murder in the September 2012 deaths of Heather Jackson, 23, and her children, Celina, 3, and Wayne Jr., 20 months, he could face the death penalty.

Not since 1990 has a potential death case in Erie County proceeded this close to trial.

That year, Erie County prosecutor Kevin Baxter pursued the death penalty against John Ray Bonds, 56, a Hells Angels member who in 1988 mistook David Hartlaub, 28, for a rival gang member. He shot him 13 times.

“We actually got to the jury selection stage,” Baxter said.

In the end, Bonds pleaded guilty to aggravated murder and was sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole.

On Aug. 25, 2012, another high-profile death penalty case ended in a plea agreement.

Kevin Randleman, 52, pleaded guilty to the March 19, 2011, murder of Sandusky police Officer Andrew Dunn. Randleman shot and killed Dunn after the officer stopped him for riding a bicycle without lights.

Prosecutors intended to take the case to trial — pursuant to the wishes of Dunn’s father, Matt Dunn, also a Sandusky police officer — but the proceedings in a competency hearing unexpectedly came to a halt when Dunn agreed to pull the possibility of death off the table.

Randleman agreed to plead guilty, securing him a spot in prison for the rest of his life.

Clinton’s trial is slated to start with more than 70 jurors arriving at the Erie County Courthouse this morning.

The case is in Judge Tygh Tone’s courtroom, and it is being prosecuted by Baxter and Ohio Attorney General special prosecutor Paul Scarsella, a death penalty expert.

Clinton, 42, is represented by certified death penalty defense attorney Robert Dixon, of Cleveland, who had also represented Randleman.

Unlike the Randleman case, however, prosecutors have made it clear they will not offer a plea agreement to Clinton, despite objections from Jackson’s parents and siblings.

Clinton is charged with multiple counts of aggravated murder and multiple death specifications in the three killings.

In Ohio, aggravating factors must accompany an aggravated murder charge for a defendant to face the death penalty.

In this case, the alleged crime fits the bill: Clinton is accused of killing two children younger than age 13, also during the commission of several other felonies, the most significant of which is the alleged rape of 3-year-old Celina the day of her death.

These circumstances place the case in the death penalty category if he’s found guilty.

Leading up to the trial, attorneys on both sides have filed dozens of motions — requesting a jury view of the John Street home where Jackson and her children died, as well as a requesting a change of venue because of the vast publicity surrounding the case.

Tone denied both those requests this week.

The case is set to start this morning with final jury selection. The 12-person jury could be seated by day’s end.

At the earliest, Tone anticipates opening statements and the first witnesses taking the stand Tuesday morning.

Clinton’s criminal history:

• January 1987: Curtis Clinton, then 17, forces his way into a Sandusky home and squeezes a woman until she passes out. The woman had refused his sexual advances. He strangles another woman who tries to intervene. Clinton is convicted of felonious assault and sentenced to a year in youth prison.

• April 3, 1997: The body of Misty Keckler, 18, is found nude, face-down in a bathtub with her feet and hands bound behind her back in a Fostoria mobile home. Clinton, 27, is arrested and charged in her death.

• 1999: Clinton pleads guilty to involuntary manslaughter and is sentenced to 10 years in prison after Wood County prosecutors drop a murder charge in exchange for his guilty plea. He receives an additional three years for the assault of prison guards in jail while he was awaiting trial.

• February 2012: Clinton is released from prison.

• Sept. 3, 2012: A 17-year-old Clyde girl tells Sandusky police Clinton strangled and raped her on Sept. 2 at his Campbell Street apartment.

• Sept. 8, 2012: The bodies of Heather Jackson and her two children are discovered in a John Street home. Jackson’s naked body is found lodged between a box spring and a mattress. The bodies of the children are found clothed in a closet. They were all strangled to death.

• Sept. 9, 2012: Clinton attempts suicide in a Clyde hotel. His 19-year-old girlfriend calls for help, and paramedics take him to Bellevue Hospital.

• Sept. 10, 2012: Sandusky detectives identify Clinton through cell phone records and track him down to Bellevue, where he’s taken into custody. He is charged with three counts murder and one count rape and booked into the Erie County jail, where he has remained since.

• Sept. 19, 2012: Clinton is indicted on three counts of rape, five counts of aggravated murder, aggravated burglary and multiple specifications, including the potential of the death penalty.

• July 2013: Jury pool questionnaires are sent out, attorneys start to narrow the pool.

• Today: Final jury questioning begins for the start of the criminal trial.

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