Lucasville riot leader appeals case sealed by high court

Updated Sept 04, 2018
JIM OTTE/STAFF

The Ohio Supreme Court on Tuesday agreed to seal records involving a post-conviction death penalty appeal brought by inmate James Were, who was convicted of murdering Corrections Officer Robert Vallandingham in the Lucasville riots 25 years ago.

Because the case files are now sealed it is difficult to determine why the court decided to close off access.

In April 1993, a group of prisoners took over “L Block” at the Southern Ohio Correctional Facility, overpowering guards and holding off police for several days. Three gangs staked out territory within L Block, which held 640 prisoners.

Related: Lucasville Riots

The Ohio Highway Patrol and FBI placed listening devices in tunnels under L Block and recorded conversations of the rioters. According to court documents, Were and other inmate leaders voted to kill a guard if their demands were not met.

By the end of the 11-day riot, Vallandingham and nine inmates had been killed.

Related: 7 things to remember about the Lucasville prison riot, 25 years later

Were was identified as one of the leaders in the uprising and was sentenced to death in 1995. But his case has been plodding through the court system ever since: the 1st District Court of Appeals affirmed the sentence in 1998; the Ohio Supreme Court overturned it in 2002 and sent it back for a new trial because the original court failed to hold a hearing on whether Were was mentally competent to stand trial; he was found competent and convicted in the retrial in 2003; the 1st District affirmed the death sentence in 2006; the Ohio Supreme Court upheld it in 2008.

Over the years, Were’s attorneys have argued that the tunnel tapes were unreliable, inmates who testified against Were received favorable treatment in exchange, and Were’s IQ was 69 — putting him in a category of developmentally disabled and not eligible for the death penalty.

Were, now 61, is being held at the Ohio State Penitentiary, a super-max facility near Youngstown.

He is represented by the Ohio Public Defender’s office, which did not return a message seeking comment.

Related: Anger over effort to free convicted killer: ‘He beat my sons to death’