COLUMBUS, Ohio — The death sentence of a man convicted of killing a college student 30 years ago is invalid because prosecutors failed to prove he committed aggravated burglary during the crime, a divided Ohio Supreme Court ruled Thursday.
The 5-2 decision also said that because the burglary evidence wasn't proved at trial, defendant Bennie Adams can't face the death penalty again when his case goes back to a judge for resentencing.
Adams, 58, was long a suspect in the 1985 rape and murder of Youngstown State University Gina Tenney but was not charged until 2007 when DNA evidence was submitted for updated testing procedures.
Prosecutors never settled on where the attack happened and never distinguished between trespass and aggravated burglary in allegations that Adams had gone into Tenney's apartment afterward, Chief Justice Maureen O'Connor said, writing for the majority.
If Adams abducted Tenney outside her apartment, she could not have been present when he returned with her keys, O'Connor said. A resident's presence in a dwelling during a burglary is one factor used to argue for an aggravated burglary charge.
"It is also possible that Adams accosted Tenney outside her apartment, forced her to admit him to the upstairs apartment, and raped and killed her there," O'Connor said. "But this scenario is purely speculative. The state presented no direct physical evidence to establish where the rape occurred."
The case was complicated by the fact the statutes of limitations had passed for prosecuting Adams on stand-alone charges of rape, kidnapping, aggravated robbery and aggravated burglary.
Normally, having those stand-alone charges would help in a capital case, said Ralph Rivera, an assistant Mahoning County prosecutor who had asked the court to uphold the death sentence.
Instead, those crimes were alleged only as additional factors to the aggravated murder, which are required under Ohio law to make someone eligible for the death penalty, he said.
A message was left for Adams' attorney. Adams had pleaded not guilty in the case, and an attorney had questioned whether the right person was arrested.
Justice Terrence O'Donnell dissented, saying it didn't make sense that the court upheld Adams' aggravated murder conviction but not the death sentence.
"If the evidence of guilt is sufficient to support a finding of guilt of aggravated murder, it is also sufficient to uphold the penalty recommended by the same jury that found guilt," O'Donnell wrote.
Tenney, 19, lived in an apartment above Adams in Youngstown and had grown fearful of him, according to the Supreme Court ruling. Her body was discovered in the Mahoning River on Dec. 30, 1985.
At the time, Adams was preliminarily charged with receiving stolen property because Tenney's ATM card was discovered in his jacket, though he was never indicted.
A year later, he was convicted of kidnapping, rape and aggravated robbery in an unrelated case in Boardman, according to Thursday's court decision. He served nearly 18 years in prison before he was released in 2004.
Andrew Welsh-Huggins can be reached on Twitter at https://twitter.com/awhcolumbus.