Sixth Circuit denies death row appeal; points inmate towards clemency

Charles Krebs, KLJ Legal News Editor

Last week, the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals made a plea to the Governor to consider clemency for a death row inmate after denying his arguments for relief through the courts.

The unique aspect of this decision is the plea to the Governor that the court makes at the end of the opinion. The court systematically, in its analysis, denied relief to Gregory Esparza but in closing the court stated that “[t]oday’s decision is not necessarily the end of the road for Esparza. Among other things, he has the right to file a clemency application with the governor to reduce his sentence from death to life in prison. In light of the many uninvited difficulties in his childhood, this application may be worth a serious look.”

Esparza murdered a woman, Melanie Gerschultz, while robbing a restaurant in Ohio of $110 in 1983. Esparza was sentenced to death in 1984 even after his lawyers had presented hundreds of pages documenting an incredibly difficult childhood full of beatings, burnings, abandonment, and more. The state appellate court and Supreme Court both affirmed the sentence on appeal and Esparza eventually filed a habeas petition in federal district court in 1996. This succeeded and was affirmed in 2002 by the Sixth Circuit, however it was reversed by the Supreme Court the next year. On remand, the district court rejected Esparza’s remaining arguments and allowed him to appeal that decision. Yesterday’s decision was a rejection of that appeal with the clemency plea offering a glimmer of hope for Esparza.

So, what’s next for Esparza? If the recent pattern by current Ohio Governor John Kasich is any indication, clemency on humanitarian grounds is a likely possibility. Since 2011 Gov. Kasich has commuted five death sentences to life in prison without parole – that is the most by any governor in the same time period. All of the sentences that have been commuted have been in accordance with the 11-member Parole Board of Ohio’s recommendation. With a Governor, and parole board, that is willing to commute death sentences to life without parole, it seems that the Sixth Circuit’s recommendation that clemency be “worth a serious look” is a very likely possibility. It will be interesting to watch what happens with Gregory Esparza’s case and whether or not the Sixth Circuit’s plea helps his chances at being granted clemency.