Accused To Fight Death Penalty

ST. CLAIRSVILLE – Brandon Michael Phelps wants Belmont County Common Pleas Judge Jennifer Sargus to take the death penalty off the table in his trial on rape and murder charges.

Phelps, 20, of 1281 Birch St., Bellaire and his attorney claimed during a status hearing Thursday that Ohio’s death penalty is unconstitutional. They outlined their stance in one of several motions filed in the case.

Phelps and Devin Wayne Fuller, 19, 3567 Franklin St., Bellaire each are charged with four counts of aggravated murder, committed in the course of rape. Each count carries a death penalty specification. They also are charged with aggravated burglary, burglary and trespassing.

The two are accused in the June 19 death of 92-year-old Bellaire resident Lydia Ashworth. A family member who became concerned after not being able to get in touch with her found Ashworth dead inside her 124 Fourth Ave. home.

Investigators have released few details about the murder, but they have said Ashworth’s killer entered through the rear of the home and that robbery was the apparent motive.

Phelps’ defense filed several motions seeking funds for a defense mitigation expert, requesting to clarify the sharing of information between prosecution and defense, forbidding officers to discuss the case with Phelps and permitting Phelps to appear in civilian clothing in court. These motions were granted with some provisions, except in cases where it was noted the procedures were already covered by law.

Sargus denied a motion to close further pretrial proceedings on the grounds that publicity could prejudice a jury. She said the jury selection process consistently has excluded prejudicial jurors.

One of the motions was a challenge to the death penalty, claiming it is unconstitutional.

“He recently filed a motion providing the death penalty in the state of Ohio was unconstitutional. Obviously we do not agree with that,” Prosecutor Chris Berhalter said, noting his office will respond within 14 days.