Testimony ends in Lawson case
IRONTON — Testimony in the punishment phase of a quadruple murder trial against convicted killer Arron Lawson in Ironton concluded Wednesday with his sister asking a three-judge panel to spare his life.
Attorneys will return to the courtroom at 8:30 a.m. Thursday, Feb. 28, at the Lawrence County Courthouse in Ironton to present closing arguments for life or death for Lawson before a panel of three judges that will decide his fate.
Lawson admitted last week to four counts of murder in the death of Devin Holston, 8; his mother, Stacey Holston, 24; her mother and Lawson’s aunt, Tammie McGuire, 43; and Tammie’s husband, Donald McGuire, 50, on Oct. 11, 2017, at the Holstons’ Pedro, Ohio, home.
He also admitted to nine other counts, which included a knife attack conducted the same day on Todd Holston, Devin’s dad and Stacey’s husband, as well as a burglary and abuse of a corpse, among other things.
He told police the murders were a result of Stacey Holston, his cousin, ending a sexual relationship with him, but prosecutors could not find evidence the relationship had existed. Testimony presented this week showed Lawson’s
mental issues could have given him an obsessive tendency toward the victim, which resulted in the killings.
After three days of testimony, a judicial panel of Alan Corbin of Clermont County, Janet Burnside of Cuyahoga County and Lawrence County Common Pleas Judge Andy Ballard agreed Monday to accept his guilty plea to all charges, except for rape because he was found guilty of abuse of a corpse.
The trial entered the punishment phase Tuesday to determine his sentencing, which includes the possibility of death. Lawson took the stand Tuesday, apologizing to the family for his actions and asking that he not be sentenced to death. His mother, Carolyn Taylor, who testified Tuesday, asked for the same.
Lawrence County Prosecutor Brigham Anderson said Wednesday that Lawson had told a cell mate he was only remorseful for Devin Holston’s death and bragged about his accurate shooting. Dr. Bob Stinson, a forensic psychologist who testified on Lawson’s behalf this week, said his opinion is that Lawson is remorseful for his actions and he could have been boasting to other inmates as part of the environment being in prison creates.
Stephanie Bentley, 26, Lawson’s sister and the final witness called by defense attorneys Wednesday, said she would be devastated if Lawson was sentenced to death.
“I absolutely love my brother,” she said. “We are very close.”
Through their investigation and Lawson’s confession, police found the night before the murders Lawson propped open a window in the Holstons’ home before re-entering the next day and hiding in a back room.
After Devin and Todd Holston left for school and work, he emerged from the bedroom, shooting Stacey Holston three times before raping her. When Devin arrived home from school at 4 p.m. — after Lawson called the boy’s school to make sure he would — he was lured into a back room with the promise of playing video games before Lawson shot him.
Tammie and Donald McGuire both were later shot twice and killed after arriving at the home separately at different times when Todd Holston had called them with the request for them to check on Stacey Holston after Todd Holston could not reach her throughout the day.
Todd Holston soon after arrived at the home and was stabbed 11 times by Lawson after entering the home.
Lawson then led authorities on a 36-hour manhunt before emerging from the woods to turn himself in to police when he was hungry. He then gave police an hour-long confession, detailing the crimes to police.
Stinson, the forensic psychologist, said during testimony Tuesday that Lawson’s behavior could have been the result of his upbringing. Stinson said it is his job to learn what led Lawson to commit the crime from a mental standpoint, not to determine his guilt.
Although Stinson spent more than 12 hours interviewing Lawson, the majority of his research came from reviewing over 6,000 pages of records surrounding Lawson and his family.
Lawson’s family has suffered from multi-generational family dysfunction, violence and poverty, he said. There was also an extensive history of mental health issues, drug and alcohol abuse, as well as neglect and physical and sexual abuse.
He found Lawson had suffered numerous traumas, medical problems — most of which occurred in his toddler years — and mental health issues but had a history of dealing with those issues through slight self-medicating with marijuana and alcohol. All these things combined would lead Lawson to be at a high risk to be violent, Stinson said.
In continuing his testimony Wednesday, Stinson said Lawson has borderline personality disorder. Those diagnosed with borderline personality disorder have extreme switches in emotions, he said, and can create obsessive tendencies that can quickly break with the slightest sign of abandonment.
Lawson also had been previously diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder because of alleged childhood abuse and losing his aunt in a fire. With PTSD, a trigger being prodded could worsen a situation, Stinson said.
Lawson had been institutionalized twice. The first time was when he chased a man with a knife for saying he was glad his aunt had died. Bentley said prior to the death of his aunt, Lawson was outgoing, loving, caring and always there. After the fire he started distancing himself, she said.
Focusing on Lawson’s first institutionalization, Anderson said a document shows Lawson sought no changes in his family and school life and said he had “always liked himself.” He claimed physical abuse at the hands of his brothers in the home, but not his father or stepmother at the time, Anderson said.
Everyone has anger and has experienced pain and rejection like this, Anderson said. Everyone has risk factors that could lead them to murder. Every life is a unique one, he said.
Defense attorney Kirk McVay countered that Anderson’s attempt to reduce more than 6,000 pages reviewed by Stinson to just one or two pages did not do justice to Stinson’s extensive research and review.
While Stinson cited poverty as one factor that led to Lawson’s issues and the killings, Anderson said poverty is common in Appalachia and not out of the ordinary. He said the murder rate in Appalachian counties is about 5 per capita, while it’s higher at about 7 in non-Appalachian counties.
Lawson had his choices, but all the factors he considered to make his final observations made it extremely more likely for him to have a negative life outcome, Stinson said.
“I believe 100 percent everyone has a choice in behaviors they (partake) in,” he said.
Lawson’s mother lost custody of Lawson when he was about 18 months old and then regained custody when he was 16 after his father abandoned him. Then, she left him and some of his siblings with her second husband. Although her second husband was described in testimony as an alleged drug dealer, both Lawson and his sister Bentley said he was a wonderful influence in their lives.
Although she did not live with her mother during her adolescence, Bentley had visitation with her mother at the same time as Lawson did. She would often go with her mother to pick him up from his father’s and said Wednesday they always had to wait on him to finish doing chores, which she believed went beyond typical chores for children his age.
No reports of child abuse were found in records Stinson reviewed, but his mother and sister did cite a couple instances of abuse occurring, the main being when he accused his step-and half-brother of shoving pencils in his ears when they were young children.
Lawson, his mother and Bentley reported to Stinson that his father and stepmother would pull on his ears until they were black and blue, but medical records don’t indicate he had ever received medical care for those issues, Stinson said.
There is at least one police record in which Lawson called police three days in a row to report abuse and showed them drugs found inside of his father’s home, Stinson said.
Anderson said Lawson had at least two positive influences in his life — an aunt on his father’s side and his mother’s second husband — and was involved in the Scouts, which would have helped negate negative life experiences.
Stinson said abuse is in the eyes of the beholder, and if it occurred or hadn’t, it still caused mental health issues in Lawson.
“Was it abuse? I don’t know,” he said. “But I know he perceives it (as such).”
Prior to court ending Wednesday, the judicial panel asked Anderson to consider overnight if he would ask for restitution to be paid for the costs of the trial and investigation.
Follow reporter Courtney Hessler at Facebook.com/CHessler-HD and via Twitter @HesslerHD.