Tuesday, 13 December 2016 09:24

SUPCO Denies Cepec Death Appeal

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SUPCO Denies Cepec Death Appeal photo: ODRC
A Medina County man serving time on Ohio's Death Row lost in his bid to have his conviction overturned.
 
Steven Cepec appealed to the Ohio Supreme Court his conviction in the 2010 murder of Frank Munz, turning aside all of his claims. All but one justice joined with Chief Justice Maureen O'Connor in the opinion, but Justice William O'Neill dissented on the death penalty sentence. O'Neill has been a vocal opponent of capital punishment.
 
Cepec was convicted of using a hammer to bludgeon and a lamp cord to strangle Munz to death on property where Cepec was staying in a recreational vehicle after he was released from prison on an earlier offense. The trial court denied Cepec's bid to have damaging statements he'd made to police excluded from the trial. The jury found him not guilty of planning the murder, but he was found guilty of murder in the commission of a robbery as well as kidnapping and burglary.
 
When Cepec was first sentenced, an execution date of June 2014 was established but that execution warrant remains on hold pending appeals.
 
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(CourtNews/Ohio Supreme Court) The convictions and death sentence of a former inmate who fled from a halfway house and killed a Medina County man were affirmed today by the Ohio Supreme Court.
 
In an opinion written by Chief Justice Maureen O’Connor, the Court rejected all the legal claims made by Steven E. Cepec, who was convicted for the June 2010 murder of Frank Munz, a man living near the property where Cepec was staying. Police captured Cepec after responding to a 911 call from Munz’ nephew, who was in the house at the time of the murder.
 
Justice William M. O’Neill voted to uphold Cepec’s convictions but dissented from the imposition of the death penalty.
 
Cepec Stops Periodically at Munz Home to Use Phone
After violating his parole for an earlier offense, Cepec was sent in May 2010 to a halfway house to complete a drug treatment program. On the day he was admitted to the program, he left to go to the hospital but never returned to the halfway house.
 
Cepec and his girlfriend moved from place to place during the following days, sometimes staying in a recreational vehicle parked in a Medina County barn owned by his girlfriend’s father. Cepec had visited the Munz house several times to use the phone.
 
On the afternoon of June 3, Frank Munz’s nephew, Paul, was at home and heard his uncle and Cepec talking. Paul then heard “two loud thumps,” his uncle shouting, someone choking, silence, and panting. After locking himself in a bedroom, Paul heard footsteps around the house, the sounds of a faucet running, and tin cans full of change being emptied. He called 911 when someone tried to open his door.
 
Officers from the Medina County Sheriff’s Office responded to a burglary in progress at the Munz house. A deputy saw Cepec in the garage and ordered him to the ground, but Cepec instead ran into the woods. Officers discovered him hiding in brush and arrested him.
 
Back at the house, police found Frank Munz lying on the kitchen floor. He died from blunt impact to his head, trunk, and extremities inflicted with a claw hammer and from strangulation with a lamp electrical cord. Paul was still in the locked bedroom.
 
Jury Finds Cepec Guilty of Nearly All Charges
Cepec pleaded not guilty to multiple charges. In a hearing, he asked the trial court to exclude certain statements he had made to the police, but the court denied his motion and the statements were admitted during trial.
 
A jury found Cepec not guilty of aggravated murder with prior calculation and design, but guilty of aggravated murder in the course of aggravated robbery, kidnapping, and aggravated burglary, along with other charges and specifications. The jury recommended a death sentence, and the trial court agreed. The court imposed the death penalty for the aggravated murder conviction plus 10 years for the aggravated-burglary conviction and a repeat-violent-offender specification.
 
Cepec filed an appeal with the Ohio Supreme Court, which hears all death-penalty cases.
 
Cepec Raises Seven Issues, Including Request for Attorney During Police Interview
The Court reviewed seven claims from Cepec alleging legal and procedural errors from the time of his arrest through sentencing.
 
In one claim, Cepec stated that he asked for, and was denied, a lawyer during police questioning and that his statements made in that interview should have been suppressed at trial. To explain the blood on his pants and shoes, Cepec told the officers during the interview that he discovered Frank lying on the kitchen floor when he went into the house to make a phone call. He denied any involvement in Frank’s murder and suggested the officers test his hands as proof. One detective asked another to get a special light and chemical to check Cepec’s hands for blood. Cepec asked, “Well, before you use it, can I have a lawyer here?” A detective responded that he didn’t think a lawyer was needed for that. Cepec continued to speak to the detectives and deny that he had been involved in Frank’s murder.
 
The detectives never conducted the chemical test, and one detective later testified that the reference to the test was only an interview technique and that they would not have done the test because it was toxic to humans.
 
Chief Justice O’Connor noted that Cepec had been read his Miranda rights before the interview, he had not asked for counsel before then, and he asked for a lawyer only in the context of the discussion about the chemical test, which was never administered. His question was not a general request for a lawyer, the Court concluded, stating that Cepec “did not unequivocally invoke his right to counsel for all purposes of the interview.”
 
The Court also rejected Cepec’s assertions that his lawyers were ineffective, that the trial court should have held a hearing about Paul Munz’s competency, that the trial judge was biased against him, that parts of the prosecutor’s closing arguments and rebuttal amounted to misconduct, and that the death penalty is unconstitutional.
 
Court Conducts Independent Evaluation of Death Sentence
As required by statute, the Court then independently reviewed the imposition of the death penalty for appropriateness and proportionality. Chief Justice O’Connor concluded that the evidence supported the jury’s finding of guilt on the aggravating circumstances that Cepec committed aggravated murder while committing aggravated robbery, while committing aggravated burglary, and after breaking detention by fleeing the drug treatment program.
 
The Court evaluated mitigating factors, such as Cepec’s family history, behavioral disorders as a child, mental-health issues as an adult, and substance-abuse problems. Noting that Cepec’s conduct on the day of the murder confirmed that he knew his actions were criminal, the Court determined the aggravating circumstances outweighed the mitigating factors beyond a reasonable doubt.
 
In the last step of the independent evaluation, the Court stated that the death penalty in this case was proportionate to other aggravated-murder cases with similar circumstances and affirmed Cepec’s convictions and death sentence.
 
Justices Paul E. Pfeifer, Terrence O’Donnell, Judith Ann Lanzinger, Sharon L. Kennedy, and Judith L. French joined the chief justice’s opinion.
 
Justice O’Neill joined the Court in affirming Cepec’s convictions, but dissented from imposing a sentence of death based on his dissent in State v. Wogenstahl (2013). In Wogenstahl, he concluded that the death penalty violates the U.S. Constitution’s prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment.
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