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William K. SAPP

 
 
 
 
 

 

 

 

 
 
 
Classification: Murderer
Characteristics: Serial rapist
Number of victims: 3
Date of murders: 1992 / 1993
Date of arrest: September 1996
Date of birth: March 22, 1963
Victims profile: Martha Leach, 11, and Phree Morrow, 12 / Belinda Anderson, 31
Method of murder: Battered in the head with an object picked up at the crime scene
Location: Clark County, Ohio, USA
Status: Sentenced to death on October 21, 1999
 
 
 
 
 

Supreme Court of Ohio

 

opinion 2004-ohio-7008

 
 
 
 
 
 

Summary of Crime:

On 8/22/92, Sapp murdered 11-year-old Martha Leach and 12-year-old Phree Morrow near downtown Springfield. Sapp raped Martha and Phree and then beat them to death. Sapp was connected to the rapes and murders through DNA testing in 1996.

Between 1993 and 1995, Sapp murdered 31-year-old Belinda Anderson and buried her body in a garage floor. Sapp was also convicted for the 1993 attempted murder of Hazel Pearson. Sapp confessed to the crimes against Martha, Phree, Ms. Anderson and Ms. Pearson.

Sapp received a death sentence for the aggravated murders of Martha, Phree and Ms. Anderson. At the time of his trial in 1997, Sapp was serving a prison sentence for assaulting and attempting to rape another Springfield woman in 1993.

 
 

State v. Sapp, Case no. 2003-0135

2nd District Court of Appeals (Clark County)

William Sapp of Springfield appeals his 1999 convictions and death sentences for the rapes and aggravated murders of 11-year-old Martha Leach and 12-year-old Phree Morrow in August 1992, and the rape and aggravated murder of Belinda Anderson in September 1993. At the same trial, Sapp was also convicted of the rape and attempted murder of another Springfield woman, Hazel Pearson, in December 1993.

The crimes for which Sapp was convicted went unsolved until September 1996. In the course of prosecuting Sapp for the attempted rape of yet another Springfield woman, Una Timmons, local police learned that Sapp might have been involved in a homicide in Jacksonville, Florida. After he was convicted and sentenced for assaulting Timmons, Sapp agreed to be interviewed by detectives from the Duval County, Fla., Sheriff's Department.

On Sept. 26, 1996, during his interview with the Florida officers and after being read his Miranda rights and waiving them in writing, Sapp admitted that he had sexually assaulted and attempted to kill a woman in Springfield several years earlier. The Florida officers informed local detectives, who then joined the interrogation. During that questioning, Sapp provided details that matched the unsolved sexual attack and attempted murder of Hazel Pearson in December 1993.

Because local detectives had linked a unique “signature” element of the attack on Pearson – the rapist's careful severing of seam stitches of the victim's jeans with a knife – with evidence recovered from the unsolved 1992 rape and murder of Martha Leach and Phree Morrow near downtown Springfield, detectives obtained samples of Sapp's blood, saliva and hair for DNA testing. The result was a positive match with semen recovered from the bodies of both girls.

On April 2, 1997, Sapp agreed to be transported from the state prison where he was incarcerated to the Springfield police department for additional questioning. After being Mirandized and signing a written waiver of his rights, Sapp was questioned into the evening and continuing the following morning about the deaths of Martha Leach and Phree Morrow.

After initially denying involvement and then offering different versions of events, Sapp was confronted with the DNA evidence and ultimately confessed not only to a leading role in the group rape and killing of Leach and Morrow, but also to his 1993 murder of Belinda Anderson, whose body was not discovered until 1995 because he had buried it inside a neighbor's garage.

Sapp was indicted on multiple counts of rape, kidnapping and aggravated murder with death penalty specifications. The trial court denied pretrial defense motions to sever the charges so that Sapp could be tried separately for his crimes against each victim. After an eight-day hearing, the court also denied defense motions to prohibit the prosecution from introducing statements from Sapp's police interrogations as evidence, and to prevent the prosecutor from showing the jury video recordings of Sapp's interrogations.

After the state presented its case, including extensive evidence from Sapp's police interrogations, the defense rested without presenting testimony by Sapp or calling any witnesses. The jury convicted Sapp on all of the rape counts and all of the aggravated murder charges and death penalty specifications. After hearing mitigation testimony about Sapp's childhood abuse by his parents and others and discussing his treatment and medication for bipolar disorder, the jury found that the aggravating factors of his crimes outweighed mitigating factors, and imposed death sentences for each of the three killings.

Because the murders took place before 1995, Sapp's case was reviewed by the 2nd District Court of Appeals, which unanimously affirmed his convictions and death sentence.

In appealing the lower courts' decisions to the Supreme Court, attorneys for Sapp ask the justices to vacate the trial court judgment and remand his case for a new trial based on 16 allegations of legal and procedural errors. Among these are claims that:

  • The trial court erred in denying Sapp's motions to suppress his statements under interrogation and the video of his confession because his waivers of the right to legal counsel and the right to remain silent were not “voluntary, knowing and intelligent.” They base this argument on the fact that Sapp was questioned over an extended period of hours when police were aware that he suffered from bipolar disorder and was taking strong medication for that condition. They also argue that, when the trial court denied Sapp's motion to suppress his statements to police, the failure of Sapp's trial counsel to request that the judge provide “findings of fact and conclusions of law” supporting that decision severely damaged his ability to later challenge that ruling on appeal, and constituted ineffective assistance of counsel.

     

  • The trial court erred in not granting Sapp's motion to sever the charges so he could be tried separately for each of the killings and for the attempted murder of Pearson. By allowing the prosecution to use evidence of Sapp's actions in the Leach-Morrow crimes to bolster its case against him in the Anderson and Pearson crimes, and vice versa, they argue, the trial court allowed the state to introduce “other acts” evidence that strongly prejudiced the jury to believe Sapp was guilty when much of that evidence would not have been admissible if each crime had been tried separately. They also contend that Sapp received ineffective assistance of counsel when his trial lawyers failed to move again to sever the charges at the end of the state's case, thereby waiving the issue for later appeals except under a demanding “plain error” standard.

     

  • The trial court erred in allowing Sapp to be tried and convicted on a capital murder specification that his crimes were committed as part of a “course of conduct” because there were substantial differences in the times, circumstances, weapons and victims involved in the aggravated murders and attempted murder with which he was charged.

Prosecutors representing the state respond that:

  • Sapp was clearly advised of his Miranda rights before each interrogation session, stated that he understood those rights and was waiving them voluntarily, and signed a written waiver. They say the record shows the trial court gave careful consideration to the defense arguments regarding Sapp's mental status and medication, conducted an extended hearing, and ruled in accordance with established precedents that Sapp's waivers were valid and his statements to police were therefore admissible.

     

  • The same “other acts” evidence admitted at Sapp's joint trial for the Leach-Morrow and Anderson murders and the Pearson attempted murder would have been admissible in all three trials if the crimes had been tried separately, the state contends. This is so, they say, because evidence regarding a defendant's other acts may be admitted to show his “motive, intent, plan or identity,” and the evidence in question established Sapp's motive and intent and identified him by virtue of a “signature” element as the perpetrator of all three crimes.

     

  • The trial court acted within its proper discretion in trying the two aggravated murder charges and attempted murder charge against Sapp in a single trial because the crimes were “of the same or similar character” and because they were “part of a course of criminal conduct” in which Sapp found or took female victims to a remote location, raped them and then brutally beat them to death, hid the bodies and disposed of other evidence at the scene to cover up his crimes.

 
 

Death Penalty Affirmed for Springfield Serial Killer

2003-0135. State v. Sapp, 2004-Ohio-7008.

Clark App. No. 99CA84, 2002-Ohio-6863. Judgment affirmed.

The Supreme Court of Ohio today unanimously affirmed the convictions and death sentence of William Sapp of Springfield for the August 1992 kidnapping, rape and aggravated murders of Phree Morrow and Martha Leach and the September 1993 assault and murder of Belinda Anderson. The court also upheld Sapp's conviction for the December 1993 kidnapping, rape and attempted murder of Hazel Peterson. All of the crimes took place in Springfield.

In upholding one of several death penalty specifications in the case, the Court approved and adopted a test set forth in a 1992 North Carolina decision, State v. Cummings . The Cummings decision held that in order to establish that a murder was part of a “course of conduct involving the purposeful killing or attempt to kill two or more persons,” the state must demonstrate “some factual link” or “discern some connection, common scheme or some pattern or psychological thread” that ties two or more killings together.

The crimes for which Sapp was convicted went unsolved until September 1996. In the course of prosecuting Sapp for the attempted rape of yet another local woman, Una Timmons, Springfield police learned that he might have been involved in a homicide in Jacksonville, Florida. After he was convicted and sentenced for assaulting Timmons, Sapp agreed to be interviewed by detectives from the Duval County, Fla., Sheriff's Department.

During his interview with the Florida officers, Sapp admitted that he had sexually assaulted and attempted to kill a woman in Springfield several years earlier. He ultimately provided details that matched the unsolved sexual attack and attempted murder of Hazel Pearson in December 1993.

Because local detectives had linked a unique “signature” element of the attack on Pearson – the rapist's painstaking severing of seam stitches of the victim's jeans with a knife – with evidence recovered from the unsolved 1992 rape and murder of 11-year-old Martha Leach and 12-year-old Phree Morrow near downtown Springfield, detectives obtained samples of Sapp's blood, saliva and hair for DNA testing. The result was a positive match with genetic material recovered from the bodies of both girls.

After initially denying involvement and then offering different versions of events, Sapp was confronted with the DNA evidence and ultimately confessed not only to a leading role in the group rape and killing of Leach and Morrow, but also to the unsolved murder of Belinda Anderson, who had disappeared from her sister's home in September 1993 but whose body was not discovered until 1995 because it had been buried inside a neighbor's abandoned garage.

Sapp was indicted on multiple counts of rape, kidnapping and aggravated murder with death penalty specifications. The trial court denied pretrial defense motions to sever the charges so that Sapp could be tried separately for his crimes against each victim. After an eight-day hearing, the court also denied defense motions to prohibit the prosecution from introducing statements from Sapp's police interrogations as evidence, and to prevent the prosecutor from showing the jury video recordings of Sapp's interrogations.

The jury convicted Sapp on all of the rape and aggravated murder counts, and on all death penalty specifications, including a finding that the murders had been committed during a “course of conduct involving the killings of two or more people.” After hearing mitigation testimony about Sapp's childhood abuse by his parents and others and his treatment and medication for bipolar disorder and depression, the jury found that the aggravating factors of his crimes outweighed mitigating factors, and imposed death sentences for each of the three killings. The 2nd District Court of Appeals affirmed the trial court's convictions and sentence.

Writing for the Court in today's decision, Justice Francis E. Sweeney Sr. overruled or held as harmless all 16 assignments of trial court error advanced by Sapp's attorneys as grounds to overturn his convictions or modify his death sentence.

In affirming the trial court's finding on the “course of conduct” death penalty specification, Justice Sweeney rejected Sapp's argument that the 12 months that elapsed between the deaths of Phree and Martha and the killing of Anderson and the different circumstances surrounding the two crimes should have precluded the jury from finding that the crimes were part of the same course of conduct.

Citing the Cummings decision from North Carolina and a Texas case, Corwin v. State , Justice Sweeney wrote that the amount of time elapsed between offenses “is a relevant factor” in considering a course-of-conduct charge, but “does not necessarily determine whether the offenses form a course of conduct.” In State v. Cummings , he noted, the jury found that “two murders 26 months apart were part of the same course of conduct, because they had a common modus operandi, ‘similar if not identical motivations,' and the victims were sisters. And in Corwin v. State … the court held that a defendant's actions in abducting, raping, and killing or attempting to kill five women ‘in more or less the same way' over 13 years could reasonably be found to constitute a course of conduct.”

While Sapp pointed to differences in the ages of the victims, physical settings, weapons used and other circumstances of his assaults on Phree and Martha, Anderson and Pearson, Justice Sweeney wrote that there were also striking similarities in the crimes, highlighted by what Sapp himself had called “signing his name” by removing the pants of the victims by slitting the seams with a knife. He also noted that each of the victims had been raped and left nude below the waist, each was battered in the head with an object picked up at the crime scene, and each suffered a fractured skull.

Justice Sweeney also noted that Sapp's statements to a fellow prisoner that “whenever he got … the taste for blood … he always went out (and) took care of his problems,” also indicated that he committed all three attacks for pleasure, “to gratify his recurring ‘taste for blood.' … Under the totality of the circumstances, we find that the evidence in this case was legally sufficient to prove that the murder of Anderson and the attempted murder of Pearson were part of a single ‘course of conduct involving the more than one intentional killing or attempted killing.”

Among numerous other claims of error rejected or held to be non-prejudicial, the justices found that the trial court did not err in denying Sapp's motion to sever the charges against him and conduct separate trials for his crimes against each victim. Quoting from this Court's opinion in

State v. Benner (1988), Justice Sweeney wrote that “if Sapp's motion had been granted … ‘the evidence of all the offenses would have been admissible in each trial' … Because ‘each [murder] or attempted [murder] was relevant to the course-of-conduct specification,' evidence relating to each of the murders and attempted murders would have been admissible at separate trials of the Morrow-Leach murders and the Anderson murder.”

Justice Sweeney's opinion was joined by Chief Justice Thomas J. Moyer and Justices Alice Robie Resnick, Evelyn Lundberg Stratton, Maureen O'Connor and Terrence O'Donnell.

Justice Paul E. Pfeifer entered a separate opinion concurring with the majority affirmance of Sapp's convictions and death sentence specifications arising from the murders of Phree Morrow and Martha Leach. He disagreed, however, with the majority finding that the killing of Belinda Anderson was part of a single “course of conduct.”

“The murder of Anderson occurred over a year after and was not related in any way to the murders of Morrow and Leach,” wrote Justice Pfeifer. Citing his own dissent in an earlier capital case, State v. Scott , he wrote that, “(i)n this case, as in Scott , ‘there was ample evidence to support [an]other death penalty specification, rendering the course-of-conduct specification unnecessary.'”

 

 

 
 
 
 
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