Ohio man could avoid execution in 1983 murder

Associated Press Published:

CINCINNATI -- An Ohio man who admitted to fatally slashing the throat of a 19-year-old woman in her home more than 30 years ago could be spared from execution because he didn't rape her.

The case of David Steffen is set to be heard in Ohio's 1st District Court of Appeals in Cincinnati in March. The court will decide whether the death penalty should be a sentencing option for Steffen, who turned 54 on Saturday at the Trumbull Correctional Institution in Northeastern Ohio.

Once that's decided, Steffen will be given a new sentence in the Hamilton County Court of Common Pleas in Cincinnati, according to The Cincinnati Enquirer.

Steffen was 22 and on probation for an Indiana bank robbery when he began selling cleaning products door-to-door in Cincinnati.

On Aug. 19, 1982, Steffen went to the home of 19-year-old Karen Range and her parents, who weren't home at the time. Range allowed Steffen inside so he could demonstrate a cleaning product in the bathroom.

Steffen later told police that he attacked Range after she screamed when his face accidentally brushed across her breast. He admitted to hitting Range, stuffing a cleaning rag into her mouth and then slicing her throat so deeply with a paring knife that he nearly decapitated her.

Steffen told police that he tried to rape Range -- whose body was found with her blouse ripped off and semen inside -- but that he was physically unable to do so.

A jury convicted him of aggravated murder while committing a rape or attempted rape and aggravated burglary, and he was sentenced to death. It was Hamilton County's first capital murder case after Ohio re-instituted the death penalty in 1981.

As Steffen appealed his conviction and sentence, prosecutors pushing to have his death sentence carried out got a DNA test conducted on the semen found in Range's body. It turned out not to be his, proving his claim all along that he hadn't raped Range.

The discovery eventually led prosecutors to Kenneth Douglas, who later admitted he'd had sex with the body of Range and two other women when he worked at the morgue. Douglas was sentenced to six years in prison after pleading guilty to gross abuse of a corpse and was released from prison earlier this year.

Steffen's attorneys are arguing that because he didn't rape Range, he should no longer be eligible for execution.

Prosecutors counter that since Steffen tried to rape her, the death sentence still applies, and that his other conviction of aggravated burglary during a murder also could make him eligible for execution.

"He is as guilty as he was 30 years ago," said prosecutor Steve Tolbert, who helped convict Steffen in 1983. "Nothing in the last 30 years has changed what David Steffen did. He almost beheaded her after she rebuffed his sexual advances."

Steffen's attorney, Shawn Welch, said the lightest new sentence his client can get is 40 years to life in prison, with credit for 30 years already served, and that it's highly unlikely Steffen will ever be freed should he become eligible for parole.

James Shrider, who was engaged to Range when she was killed, said he hopes Steffen is sentenced to death again.

He and Range, who wanted to be a veterinarian, had picked out their wedding rings the day before her murder.

The pair would have been celebrating their 31st wedding anniversary this New Year's Eve.

Instead, Shrider went to his fiancée's funeral and Steffen's trial.

"It would be really nice to have closure but I don't think I'll ever have that until he's put to death," Shrider said.

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Information from: The Cincinnati Enquirer, http://www.enquirer.com

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