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Bell v. Ohio

Significance

Though not as well-known as Furman v. Georgia (1972) and other cases related to capital punishment procedure, Bell v. Ohio concerned itself with two of the fundamental issues explored in most of the landmark death penalty-related cases: the examination of mitigating factors in sentencing, and the question of whether the death penalty itself constitutes cruel and unusual punishment.

On 16 October 1974, Willie Lee Bell, a 16-year-old, met his 18-year-old friend Samuel Hall at a youth center in Cincinnati, Ohio. After going to Hall's home, Hall borrowed a car, and the two drove around for some time. They pursued a car driven by Julius Graber, 64, and forced him into a parking garage. Using a sawed-off shotgun, Hall forced Graber to give up his car keys, then ordered him to get into the trunk. Hall drove Graber's car, and Bell followed in Hall's car, back to Hall's house; then the two drove Graber's car, with Bell at the wheel and Graber still in the trunk, to a cemetery.

A nearby resident would later testify that he saw Graber's car on the cemetery's service road with its parking lights on. There were sounds of two car doors closing, and a voice screaming, "Don't shoot me! Don't shoot me!" This was followed by two shots. After seeing Graber's car pull away, now with its lights off, the witness called the police. The latter found Graber lying facedown with a wound on the back of his neck, and another on his right cheek. By the time the ambulance arrived at the hospital, he was dead.

Meanwhile, Bell and Hall spent the night with friends of Hall in Dayton, Ohio. The next day, with Bell again at the wheel of Graber's car, they pulled up at a service station, where Hall used the shotgun to force the station attendant to get into his own car's trunk. Now in an apparent repeat of the previous day's escapade, Hall drove away in the attendant's car, with the latter in the trunk, while Bell followed in Graber's car. But this time, a policeman stopped Hall for a defective muffler--and in the course of this, discovered the car's owner in the trunk.

Bell was not caught immediately, having driven on past when the patrolman stopped Hall, but he was apprehended soon after he returned to Cincinnati and abandoned Graber's car. He waived both his right to testify and his right to a jury trial, opting instead for trial by a three-judge panel. In lieu of testimony from the defendant, Bell's counsel presented the court with a statement made by the defendant at the time of his arrest. In it, Bell said that although he had gone to the cemetery with Hall, he had no intention of participating in a murder. Instead, he claimed, he asked Hall what they were going to do to, and was told, "We'll see. Give me the keys." According to Bell's statement, Hall marched Graber into the woods and shot him out of Bell's sight. (Perhaps not surprisingly, Hall claimed that Bell had shot Graber.)

Additional topics

Law Library - American Law and Legal InformationNotable Trials and Court Cases - 1973 to 1980Bell v. Ohio - Significance, Ohio Sentences Bell To The Death Penalty, The High Court Strikes Down Ohio's Law