Login | October 27, 2020

11th District affirms Trumbull County woman’s death penalty case

Legal News Reporter

Published: October 1, 2020

A woman who read her own opening statement to a Trumbull County jury at trial later argued her attorneys never told her she would be the only one to speak.
However, the 11th District Court of Appeals recently affirmed the trial court’s dismissal of Donna Roberts’ amended post-conviction petition on the state’s motion for summary judgment.
Roberts was sentenced to death after her convictions for aggravated murder, aggravated burglary and aggravated robbery. The charges stemmed from Roberts’ role, as aider and abettor, in the shooting death of her former husband, Robert Fingerhut, by her lover Nathaniel Jackson.
On Dec. 12, 2001, Roberts reported the shooting death of Fingerhut at their home in Howland Township. After a week-long investigation, police arrested Roberts and Jackson, a man she had been dating for two years and with whom she had been having an affair.
The evidence presented at that trial reveals that although she and Fingerhut were divorced, they lived together and were regarded as husband and wife. Fingerhut owned two insurance policies on his life with a total benefit amount of $550,000, both of which named Roberts as the sole beneficiary.
Roberts began an affair with Jackson, who later went to prison on unrelated convictions. During his incarceration, he and Roberts exchanged numerous letters, which police recovered from her house and the trunk of her car. Prison authorities also recorded 18 of their telephone conversations. The letters and conversations included extensive discussion of how they intended to deal with Fingerhut upon Jackson’s release from prison. Jackson was separately tried and convicted of murdering Fingerhut and sentenced to death.
In her latest appeal, Roberts claimed her convictions and sentences are void because she was denied the effective assistance of counsel during first stage of her capital trial.
Roberts herself addressed the jury in her opening statement as follows:
“Good morning. Will the real Donna Roberts please stand up? Ladies and gentlemen, the real Donna Roberts stands before you. The testimony and evidence will establish that I played no part in [Fingerhut’s] death. The Donna Roberts you’ll hear portrayed in the letters and on those tapes is not the real Donna Roberts. My attorneys will test the state’s evidence and ask important questions in cross-examination. Please, please listen carefully for those questions. Perhaps I’ll have more to say later. Regardless, I am not guilty. I am not guilty. And you’ll know that when this case is over.”
Roberts alleged her counsel was ineffective because they did not present a video tape of the co-defendant in which Jackson precluded Roberts’ participation in the homicide, failed to present the co-defendant’s claim of self-defense, obstructed Roberts’ right to testify and failed to provide a closing argument to the jury.
Roberts submitted an affidavit stating her attorneys gave her a piece of paper with what they wanted her to say in opening statement, but did not tell her she was the only one who was going to talk.
However, appellate Judge Matt Lynch said in his opinion that the decision to omit any closing argument must be viewed as a tactical decision made by trial counsel.
“We further note that, in the penalty phase of her trial, Roberts forbade trial counsel from making arguments or presenting evidence in mitigation,” Lynch wrote. “In lieu of arguing for mitigation, Roberts chose to personally make an unsworn statement directly to the jury. The statement was made against the advice of counsel. Her expressed purpose in making the statement was ‘to expose people who have taken an oath to God to tell the truth, the whole truth, and then sat in that witness box and lied and cheated [and] abused authority, used their power to destroy lives,’ and ‘to demand racial equality in a courtroom.’
“In the course of this statement she expressed her appreciation for her attorneys described as ‘wonderful, brilliant men.’ She instructed her attorneys to quit filing motions on her behalf.”
The panel also agreed with the state that a video tape of Jackson being interviewed by police claiming he shot Fingerhut in self-defense and that Roberts ‘ain’t had nothing to do with it all, man,’ was inadmissible hearsay.
Appellate judges Timothy P. Cannon and Mary Jane Trapp concurred. The case is cited State v. Roberts, 2020-Ohio-4188.