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Victims’ Relatives Outraged at Death-Sentence Commutation

January 11, 1991

CINCINNATI (AP) _ Relatives of two people killed by Debra Denise Brown during a Midwest murder-and-robbery spree expressed outrage Friday at outgoing Gov. Richard Celeste’s decision to take her off death row.

A prosecutor in Indiana, where Ms. Brown also was sentenced to death, said he would try to extradite her so that she could be executed in that state.

Celeste, a Democrat who opposes the death penalty, commuted Ms. Brown’s sentence and those of the other three women on Ohio’s death row to life in prison Thursday.

Celeste also commuted the sentence of country singer Johnny Paycheck, who left jail Friday afternoon after serving 23 months of a seven-to-9 1/2-year prison term for aggravated assault in the shooting of a bar patron.

Both the prosecutor and relatives of Ms. Brown’s victims said they were upset with Celeste’s actions.

″How can the governor do that?″ said Harry Storey, whose teen-age daughter, Tonnie, was killed by Ms. Brown and her common-law husband, Alton Coleman, in 1984.

″They raped and killed my baby, and I’d like to see both of them burn. She wasn’t but 15 years old,″ Storey said. ″They should be dead. They killed eight people, you know. And they want to live?″

″I think it’s a tragedy and an outrage,″ said Hamilton County Prosecutor Arthur M. Ney Jr., who prosecuted Ms. Brown. He keeps a framed copy of her FBI wanted poster on his office wall.

Ms. Brown, 27, is serving two life sentences for murder and also was convicted of kidnapping and robbery after a seven-week crime spree with Coleman across Ohio, Indiana, Illinois and Wisconsin.

Celeste, governor since 1983, was prohibited by law from a third consecutive four-year term. He will be succeeded Monday by Republican George Voinovich, who has not taken a position on clemency requests.

Celeste’s press secretary, Heidi Findley, said the governor was not available for comment Friday.

The governor anticipated criticism at a news conference announcing the commutation of Ms. Brown’s death sentence and those of seven others, including that of a man who kidnapped, raped and killed a 7-year-old girl.

″The decision to grant or withhold executive clemency is perhaps the most awesome responsibility that comes with being governor,″ Celeste said. ″It is not a responsibility in good conscience I could leave unexercised and unfilled.

″I hope that in each of these instances, the public interest is served.″

The governor cited a report by his staff that Ms. Brown was retarded and suffered from childlike emotional development. The report said she had a ″master-slave″ relationship with Coleman.

Coleman is on Ohio’s death row for killing Marlene Walters of Norwood, and also has been sentenced to death for murders in Indiana and Illinois.

Mrs. Walters’ husband, Harry, said he would send Celeste a protest telegram. ″I don’t know what the governor was thinking,″ Walters said.

In Indiana, Lake County Prosecutor Jon E. DeGuilio said Friday he would ask for custody of Ms. Brown to carry out the death sentence a jury imposed for the death of 7-year-old Tamika Turks of Gary.

″We will make every effort possible to have her execution in Indiana,″ DeGuilio said.

The human rights group Amnesty International USA praised Celeste, saying it hoped Celeste’s actions would encourage other governors to comes.

In the past few weeks, Celeste has commuted the sentences of 35 people, 26 of them women who were convicted of killing or assaulting an abusive husband or companion. Celeste said the women might have been acquitted under a new state law that strengthens protections for battered women accused of violent crimes.

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