I-Team: Another chance for Anthony Kirkland

Convicted serial rapist, killer to be resentenced

Convicted serial killer Anthony Kirkland has been on death row for seven years. But that could change in the coming weeks when he’s resentenced in two murder cases. Kirkland’s guilt or innocence won’t be on trial, just his sentence. The jury will decide if Kirkland lives -- in prison for the rest of his life -- or dies at the hands of the state.

Between 1987 and 2009, his crimes disturbed the Tri-State and devastated the loved ones of three women and two girls. This is the story of Kirkland’s crime spree in Cincinnati.

Leonard Douglas’ twin sister was murdered 30 years ago, but he still thinks about her daily.

“Especially the holidays,” he said. “Once somebody takes something away from you like that, they’re just gone. And you just have a memory.”

Leola Douglas' killer -- one of Cincinnati's most notorious criminals -- is on death row. But that could soon change.

In the coming weeks, Anthony Kirkland will have the opportunity to convince a court to change his death sentence and save his life.

 

The Ohio Supreme Court's decision to grant the 49-year-old a resentencing hearing has caused heartache and trauma for the families of victims, members of his criminal trial and many others.

And it's all because of one statement Hamilton County Prosecutor Joe Deters uttered in a closing argument seven years ago.

 

A history of burglaries, sex crimes and murder

Over a 22-year span, Kirkland killed five people. Three of his victims were women, two were teenage girls. Most were sexually assaulted in some way, investigators said, and all of their bodies were burned.

Aside from the homicides, Kirkland was involved in violent burglaries, SWAT standoffs and sex crimes involving children. He admitted to drug use and soliciting prostitutes.

The death of Leola Douglas was the first crime to send Kirkland to prison. He admitted to raping and strangling her, and lighting her body on fire. He pleaded guilty to manslaughter and served 16 years of his 25-year sentence.

Leola Douglas

Less than two years after he was released, Kirkland was arrested on rape and burglary charges.

He was accused of raping a neighbor in Evanston, according to court documents; a jury found him not guilty.

Less than a year after that, police began finding bodies that investigators later tied to Kirkland. The first victim was Casonya Crawford, whose grandmother called police when the 14-year-old didn’t return home from her friend’s house one night in May 2006.

Casonya Crawford

On the day she disappeared, Crawford was talking on the phone with her boyfriend when her phone cut out.

City landscapers found her body in a wooded area near Blair Court in Avondale under a pile of old tires. Crawford was burned beyond any recognition -- investigators couldn’t even determine her race.

The only clothing she was wearing was one sock, but the criminal pathologist who examined her body was unable to do a rape kit because of the severe charring. Her front teeth were “knocked out,” but dental records helped identify her.

One month later, investigators found another body only a few blocks south, in another wooded area near Whittier Street.

 

Like Crawford, the second victim was burned beyond recognition. Investigators said she was doused with lighter fluid or paint thinner before she was set on fire.

After a dental records search, the coroner identified the body as 45-year-old Mary Jo Newton, a woman with a history of prostitution and drug use. Unlike Crawford, Newton wasn’t reported missing.

Mary Jo Newton

Police connected Crawford and Newton’s deaths quickly because of the similarity in the crimes and the proximity of the crime scenes.

In December 2006, 25-year-old Kimya Rolison disappeared from home shortly after she left a drug rehab program.

Her family assumed she ran away, possibly to use drugs. Her body wasn’t found until two years later, also badly burned. Her bones were scattered through a wooded area in Avondale, but pathologists determined she was stabbed in the neck, according to court documents.

Kimya Rolison

Police arrested Kirkland in May 2007, five months after Rolison’s disappearance. He spent 115 days in jail after he threatened to kill his 18-month-old son and held a “sharp grilling fork” to his neck, court documents state. A SWAT standoff ensued and police arrested Kirkland.

After his release from jail, police arrested Kirkland again when they said he offered to pay his friend’s young daughter for sex.

According to court documents, Kirkland entered the girl’s room naked, propositioned her for sex and said he would pay her $5 if she let him perform oral sex on her. When she rejected him, he returned later with a note proposing the same act. She denied him again, but he gave her the $5 anyway, authorities said.

Police charged Kirkland with importuning and public indecency and he spent a year in prison for the incident.

In 2008, Kirkland stayed at the Pogue Rehabilitation Center in Over-the-Rhine for four months until staff kicked him out for fighting another resident.

On March 1, 2009 -- two days after he left the Pogue Center -- Kirkland broke into a man’s home and stabbed him repeatedly with scissors, according to police documents.

 

Police didn’t find him until the following week. He was hiding in the woods holding 13-year-old Esme Kenney’s iPod and purple watch.

Esme Kenney

Kenney attended the School for the Creative and Performing Arts and played the cello. On March 8, she left her Winton Hills home to go on a jog just before 4 p.m. Police and family members searched for the teen through the night.

At 3 a.m. on March 9, police found her body in a wooded area. She was strangled, naked and burned from the waist down. She was found less than 100 yards from the place police found Kirkland.

 

After a four-hour interview, Kirkland admitted to killing, sexually assaulting and burning part of Kenney’s body.

After another four hours, Kirkland admitted to killing Crawford, Newton and “Kim,” who was later identified as Rolison. A grand jury indicted Kirkland for murder in all of their deaths.

 

In a 24-hour whirlwind, police arrested Kirkland and he admitted to killing four people, solving three cold cases at once.

How was Kirkland able to kill again?

After Kenney’s death in 2008, politicians and members of the public looked for someone to blame for Kirkland’s killing spree.

That blame initially went to the Pogue Center, where Kirkland was supposed to be living while he was on parole. In a 2009 WCPO story, the I-Team investigated claims from former staff and family members of Pogue Center residents that characterized the facility as drug and alcohol-ridden.

 

The state’s department of rehabilitation later examined the center, and many members of the public advocated for shutting it down.

However, representatives from Volunteers of America, which ran Pogue, said the center’s staff was not equipped to handle conflict with residents, criminal behavior or violence.

Then-City Councilman Cecil Thomas said simply shutting down the Pogue Center wouldn’t solve the problem; Cincinnati would still be a “dumping ground,” he said.

“How many other Anthony Kirklands are out there?” he asked at a 2009 meeting.

Today, the building at 115 W McMicken is still a rehabilitation center run by the Volunteers of America. It goes by the name “The Volunteers of America Rehabilitation Reentry Center.” It has 130 beds and focuses on helping registered sex offenders “become productive members of the community,” according to its website.

Another thing the public blamed: A technicality.

In 2002, Ohio prisoners won a lawsuit against the state’s Parole Authority. Among other things, the lawsuit changed the way boards evaluate a prisoner’s eligibility for parole. Prior to the lawsuit, parole depended on the crime a prisoner committed, not the crime for which they were convicted.

This made a big difference for Kirkland and other Ohio prisoners who took plea deals. A grand jury indicted Kirkland on a murder charge in Leola Douglas’ death, but he pleaded guilty to voluntary manslaughter. The lesser charge carries less stringent parole guidelines.

The parole board granted Kirkland a new parole hearing in 2003; he was one of more than a thousand prisoners who were granted parole as a result of the lawsuit.

WCPO also talked to Leonard Douglas in 2009 after Kirkland’s arrest. At the time, Leonard said he was in disbelief that the man who killed his sister was able to kill four more people before police captured him.

 

“I blame the system,” Douglas said in 2009. “Because the system should not let nobody (sic) on the street that’s that violent.”

He still blames the system today, but now his frustration is compounded by the new technicality that could allow Kirkland to receive a lighter sentence.

“I feel like the system cares more about the criminals than they do the victims and their family members,” Douglas said. “I feel the system is not right.”

Hamilton County Common Pleas Judge Charles J. Kubicki, the judge assigned to Kirkland’s original case, said he knows “the system isn’t perfect.”

“You never have a perfect trial. It would almost be like pitching a perfect game,” he said. “Everyone, leading up to that trial, I think they did their best to get it right.”

 

Kirkland’s second chance

“So I guess Casonya and Esme are just freebies for him?”

That one sentence could mean the difference between life and death.

Prosecutor Joe Deters made the statement during closing arguments in Kirkland’s 2010 sentencing.

The jury had heard 13 days of testimony in the murder case of Casonya Crawford and Esme Kenney. The defense was essentially non-existent: Kirkland’s attorneys called no witnesses, mitigation or otherwise.

It only took the jury three hours to find Kirkland guilty. Days later, the jury recommended a death sentence and Judge Kubicki agreed.

“I went ahead, did what I thought was appropriate, and followed the law,” Kubicki said.

Deters had pushed hard for that sentence. He told jury members that if they didn’t recommend Kirkland’s death, the slayings would be “freebies” for Kirkland, who was already serving a life sentence for the murders of Mary Jo Newton and Kimya Rolison.

Ohio halted executions shortly after Kirkland’s death sentence due to several “botched” lethal injection cases. Executions resumed in Ohio in 2017 when the state killed convicted child rapist and murderer Ronald Phillips by lethal injection.

During that period, Kirkland filed an appeal to try and send his case back to trial. He argued the prosecution included prejudicial evidence of prior bad acts -- namely the importuning case involving his friend’s young daughter. He also said his counsel was ineffective and the jurors were not properly vetted. He also argued the death penalty itself was unconstitutional.

Originally, the state Supreme Court rejected Kirkland’s appeal. But several years later, after a ruling in Florida, a second appeal stuck.

Kirkland’s attorneys cited the 2015 case Hurst v. Florida, in which the U.S. Supreme Court said Timothy Hurst’s death sentence was issued in a way that violated his Sixth Amendment right to due process.

The attorneys said, as in Hurst v. Florida, Kirkland’s right to a fair trial was violated when Deters made the “freebie” statement in his closing arguments. The attorneys argued the comment was inappropriate.

Four of Ohio’s seven Supreme Court justices sided with Kirkland and granted him a resentencing hearing.

Anthony Kirkland at a court hearing

“It is improper for prosecutors to incite the jurors’ emotions through insinuations and assertions that are not supported by the evidence and that are therefore calculated to mislead the jury,” the Ohio Supreme Court decision said. "Although the crimes Kirkland is alleged to have committed are horrific, due process requires that a jury be free from prejudice before recommending the death penalty.”

The prosecutor’s office disagreed with the ruling and said the justices “misinterpreted” Deters’ closing argument.

Resentencing hearings have happened in Ohio, but not for death penalty cases -- and not because of comments made by a prosecutor in open court that were later deemed inappropriate.

Most resentencing cases involved technical errors, like the omission of the word “not” or the confusing a sentence’s maximum and minimum. Some are more serious, however, like one 2007 resentencing case after a judge allowed the prosecutor to write part of the suspect’s sentence.

However, a case like Kirkland’s -- where a convict’s death sentence hangs in the balance of a resentencing hearing -- is a first, according to Kubicki.

Kubicki said he doesn’t blame the prosecutor for the outcome of the trial and sentencing.

“I don’t blame anybody for anything,” Kubicki said. “I think everybody did the best they could. It’s kind of like the armchair quarterback watching your favorite team play football. And the Monday morning quarterback thing where you say, ‘You should have done this, and you shouldn’t have done that.’”

A new jury now will be chosen in Hamilton County. Kubicki gave up the case, so another judge will try it. Kirkland has a new defense team -- the only constants are Deters and Kirkland.

“I feel very, very sorry that there’s going to be a new set of people that are going to have to go through this and see and hear the things that other jurors did,” Kubicki said. “I’ve never seen as many people affected by it that were connected with the trial.”

A ‘fair shake?’

Leonard Douglas said he thinks it’s time for Kirkland to be held accountable.

He was surprised, he said, that Kirkland’s guilt hasn’t overpowered his will to live.

Leonard Douglas in a 2009 interview with WCPO

“Why would you go through life after doing that -- killing anybody?” Leonard said.

Leonard wouldn’t say if he felt Kirkland deserved to die; he said he “couldn’t pass judgment” on a man’s right to live or die.

“I feel like this: If you can go through life doing that to innocent females then you deserve whatever get put on your plate,” he said.

Likewise, the family of Kirkland’s last victim, Kenney, said they had internal conflicts over the death penalty.

The Kenney family has avoided media contact since the 2010 Kirkland trial.

Kibucki -- a 15-year veteran in the Hamilton County Common Pleas Court -- said that trial was so arduous that he arranged for counselors to talk to the jurors as soon as they’d rendered their verdict.

“That was a very, very difficult trial because it was so horrific,” he said. “It’s a case you won’t forget.

“A lot of times you think that your imagination is worse than the reality, but in this particular case, the reality was worse than what your imagination could come up with … There’s certain things you just won’t forget.”

Jury selection for the sentencing was scheduled to begin Nov. 9 but rescheduled after Kirkland's attorneys requested they be removed from the case. Nadel said we might see a selection process that lasts longer than the resentencing trial itself.

 

“The prosecution will put on a synopsis and put on the investigators and all that sort of thing,” retired judge Norbert Nadel said. “It will be done in a brief fashion.”

This resentencing hearing won’t address Kirkland’s guilt or innocence in the murders of Kenney and Crawford -- only the sentences, between a life sentence and a death sentence.

The defense might not call any witnesses for testimony in the resentencing hearing, Nadel said.

“(The defense attorneys) have a great hill to climb because of the facts of that case, the horrible facts of the case,” Nadel said. “They have a horrible, difficult hill to climb as they should have.”

Nadel said he also believes the upcoming sentencing hearing is just a delay tactic. Regardless of the decision, he said he thinks Kirkland will die in prison.

“He’ll probably get a fairer shake than he gave the victims,” Nadel said.