Ohio killer alleging racism-tainted jury seeks new trial

Lawyers for an Ohio death row inmate who is Black are seeking a new trial based on allegations that racial slurs were used during jury deliberations at his trial nearly two years ago

COLUMBUS, Ohio -- An Ohio death row inmate who is Black is seeking a new trial based on allegations that some white jurors used racial slurs in describing him during their deliberations over his fate, according to arguments before a state appeals court.

Defendant Gregory McKnight was sentenced to death nearly 20 years ago for the 2000 kidnapping and fatal shooting of Emily Murray, a 20-year-old white student at Kenyon College in central Ohio. McKnight also received a life sentence after being convicted in 2002 of murder for the killing around the same time of a 20-year-old Black man, Gregory Julious.

Allegations of racial slurs during deliberations over McKnight’s guilt and whether he should be executed are contained in accounts provided to an investigator for McKnight’s attorneys who in 2017 began tracking down jurors from the trial. Jurors considered McKnight’s guilt for both Julious and Murray’s deaths, with at least one slur used in referring to McKnight “killing a white girl,” according to his attorney’s filings.

“The deliberations were replete with racist statements and discussions of the rawest and most shocking nature during both the guilt and penalty phases of the trial,” McKnight's lawyers argued in a document filed with the Fourth District Court of Appeals.

Authorities say McKnight kidnapped Murray from the campus area and then shot her in the head near his rural home and rolled her body in a carpet. McKnight was also accused of fatally shooting Julious, whose skeletal remains were found on the property during a search.

The court filing said multiple people on the jury used a racial slur when referring to McKnight, according to one of the jurors interviewed by the investigator.

McKnight's attorneys say a 2017 ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court allows them to bring such arguments up now. In that decision, Pena-Rodriguez v. Colorado, the court said lower courts can examine jury deliberations when there are indications that racial bias deprived a defendant of his right to a fair trial.

The Ohio Attorney General's Office, opposes McKnight's request for a new trial. It says the U.S. Supreme Court ruling doesn't cover cases like McKnight's that have already been decided.

A federal judge agreed and rejected a similar appeal over the alleged racial comments in 2018.

The state also notes the Fourth District appeals court previously rejected McKnight's allegations of racism in his trial. The new affidavits contain hearsay and opinion and shouldn't be admitted as evidence, the state said.

The evidence consists of “nothing more than single and double hearsay about what somebody said about what somebody said,” Stephen Maher, an assistant Ohio attorney general, wrote in a court filing last year.

The district appeals court scheduled oral arguments for Thursday morning. A decision isn't expected for weeks.

McKnight doesn't have an execution date. The death penalty is on long-term hold in Ohio while the state tries to find a supply of drugs to carry out lethal injection. The state's last execution was on July 18, 2018, when Ohio put to death Robert Van Hook for killing David Self in Cincinnati in 1985.

On Sept. 24, Christopher Vialva was executed in Terre Haute, Indiana, for killing a religious couple visiting Texas from Iowa in 1999. He was the first Black inmate put to death as part of the Trump administration’s resumption of federal executions after a nearly 20-year pause. Vialva's was the seventh federal execution since July and the second in a week.

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