Question of guilt lingers for juror

By Deanna Hohler Bottar Record-Courier staff writ Published:

The details of an armed robbery trial still weigh heavily on a former juror's mind _ even though the court proceedings ended four years ago.

The Kent woman vividly recalls discussions behind closed jury-room doors, the pressure she felt to agree with 11 strangers and the questions that went unanswered regarding the 1994 case.

The juror was part of a 12-member panel that convicted Ravenna native Paul Sanders, then 24, in the robbery at what was then the Vale Edge Sparkle Market on South Chestnut Street in Ravenna. He was sentenced to serve eight to 25 years in prison for the crime.

"I'm inclined to think that he was innocent," the retired Kent State University English instructor and former juror said. "But I do feel that the jury proceedings in part were such that he didn't receive a fair trial."

The juror, who spoke on condition of anonymity, has written a letter to an Akron attorney who was contacted by Sanders' family to explore appeal plans. The 11-page letter contains notes she took during the trial while she was outside the courtroom. It also includes copies of letters expressing her concerns about jury deliberations to Karl Rissland, the Portage County public defender who represented Sanders, and now retired Judge George Martin who heard the case.

Sanders recently was moved from a maximum security prison in London, Ohio to a medium-security institution in Marion. He intends to file a sentence-reduction motion this month to ask the court to reduce his sentence to a flat term of five years, he said.

Portage County Common Pleas Judge John Enlow, who was elected in 1996 to Martin's seat upon his retirement, will rule on the motion after it is filed.

Sanders has applauded the juror, saying he respects her bravery for continuing to be involved in a trial that took place four years ago.

"I definitely commend her on what she's doing," he said Friday in a phone interview monitored by prison officials at the North Central Correctional Institution.

"A lot of times, a juror might feel a certain way and just go with the majority. Even if they feel different, once the verdict is in, that would be it, and just go on with their life," he said. "She's standing strong on what she believes. I'm definitely commending her on everything she's doing. I involve her in my prayers every night."

The juror seriously questioned whether the case against Sanders sufficiently proved his guilt and said she finally voted, "guilty, with reservations," when a poll was taken in the jury room after days of deliberation.

Before she conceded, she was the lone hold-out when the rest of the jury already had decided Sanders' fate.

"I hope I'm never arrested and have to put my fate in the hands of a jury," she wrote in the letter. "My impression was that the majority of the (jury) members believed the defendant was guilty and considered the evidence from the viewpoint of supporting that verdict."

But not everyone involved in the case believes Sanders is innocent.

Ravenna Police Det. Bobby Cooper, who investigated the incident, said he still believes Sanders robbed the store and the prison sentence he's serving is appropriate.

"The (Sparkle) manager knew him, but he couldn't remember his name," Cooper said. "Everybody over there (at the store) was able to positively identify him."

Sanders was tried twice for his crime. The first jury resulted in a hung verdict, prompting the second trial.

The juror said the jury foreman in the second trial remarked that the Portage County court system's docket was full and funds were short, so a verdict needed to be reached during the second trial to avoid a third.

"I won't have a hung jury," the woman recalled him saying.

"I think it was entirely out of place for him to know that information," she said.

She describes the pressure as immense as she tried to determine whether she believed Sanders entered the grocery store wearing a baseball cap and sunglasses, and held a firearm while he demanded money _ stolen funds that were never recovered.

She employed something she learned while watching TV's "Perry Mason" when she requested to see part of the trial transcript to clarify an issue during jury deliberations. The request was denied by the bailiff who told the juror the transcript would take too long to get, she said.

During the trial, a friend of Sanders', Rebecca Taylor, then 19, was charged with perjury for lying on the stand for Sanders. She told the court she could identify the robbery suspect because she nearly collided with him the day of the robbery. Rissland later told the jury Sanders' involvement with her statement was "stupid."

The juror said the perjury incident didn't influence her opinion about Sanders' possible role in the robbery. She said it showed he was scared.

"I had to decide which way to go," she said. "I could very easily have voted guilty, but I still thought there were enough doubtful circumstances to vote not guilty."

Sanders' family is eager to have Sanders home again, he said.

"He's missed so in our family. I've never had anyone taken out of our family for this amount of time," Sanders' mom, Mary Benedict, said of her son's absence. "It's very hard to have a loved one that you can't help. You can't protect him. You know that he goes through hard times there and there's nothing you can do about it. I just pray real hard to God to protect him."

Sanders' cousin, Mike, said Sanders had gone out for a walk the night of the robbery and was just in the wrong place at the wrong time. He said it's important to look at how many young, African-American men are in prison.

"There's too many young, black men that are in prison," he said. "If they can't convict O.J. Simpson, Lord knows they shouldn't have been able to convict Paul. The bottom line is who has the best lawyers."

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