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Death Penalty Hearing From 1999 Belmont County Murder Case Goes to Court of Appeals

photo by: Robert A. DeFrank

Belmont County Common Pleas Judge Frank Fregiato listens to proceedings Friday in what was to have been a hearing to convert a death sentence to life without parole in the case of Nawaz Ahmed, convicted of the 1999 murders of four people in St. Clairsville.

ST. CLAIRSVILLE – A hearing was set Friday to consider rescinding the death penalty for Nawaz Ahmed, convicted of four murders in the city, but instead the prosecution, defense and Ahmed himself were all at odds and the Seventh District Court of Appeals must determine if the case can continue.

In 2001, Ahmed was sentenced to death for the 1999 murder of his estranged wife and her family. Ahmed was convicted of murdering 39-year-old Dr. Lubaina Bhatti, her father, 78-year-old Abdul Majid Bhatti, her sister, 35-year-old Ruhie Ahmed, and her niece, 2-year-old Nasira Ahmed. The bodies were found on Sept. 11, 1999, in St. Clairsville and Ahmed was reportedly detained before he could depart on a flight for Pakistan.

On Friday, Ahmed appeared before Belmont County Common Pleas Frank Fregiato via video from death row at the Chillicothe Correctional Institution.

Ahmed’s defense attorney, Adele Shank had filed on behalf of Ahmed, claiming he was seriously mentally ill at the time of the killings, and therefore not eligible for the death penalty. However, Ahmed had appealed an aspect of the case, which now must go to the Court of Appeals.

Belmont County Common Pleas Judge Frank Fregiato found there was no basis for going forward, since the notice of appeal transferred jurisdiction to the court of appeals.

Ahmed filed his appeal May 18. While speaking over video conferencing, the first thing he said was to tell Fregiato the appeal had been filed and Fregiato’s court had no jurisdiction.

“We filed a petition under Ohio’s new law that allows those who are seriously mentally ill at the time of their crimes and have already been sentenced to death to come to court to have a determination made, to see whether or not they qualify to have their death sentence converted to a life sentence,” Shank said afterward.

“One of the factors that was discussed in court today is the fact that Mr. Ahmed’s serious mental illness, I believe after working with him for many years, has led to him being incompetent,” Shank said. “At trial, he was found to have a delusional disorder, which is one of the mental illnesses covered by Ohio’s new serious mental illness exception to executions.”

Shank added that Ahmed’s disorder was found to be a mitigating factor.

“The merits of the serious mental illness claim were not addressed today. Today was really a procedural matter, and the question was whether or not his notice of appeal removed the case from this court’s jurisdiction to that of the court of appeals. The judge here said ‘yes’ and he’s going to let the court of appeals make its own determination of its jurisdiction, and then we’ll see what happens next,” she said.

The statute with the mental health provision falls under 2953.21 of the Ohio Revised Code, or post-conviction relief petitions, and went into effect April 12, 2021. Shank said if the court finds that this applies, Ahmed’s death sentence would be modified to life without parole.

“This is essentially three parties, the state, the defense counsel, respectfully, and the defendant,” Flanagan said. “In this particular case the defendant has made clear, both with a filing with this court as well as the court of appeals, he does not want to proceed with this particular matter, this particular issue … with this particular counsel.”

During the hearing, Shank said Ahmed could not waive counsel without a competency determination. She added she believed Ahmed’s competence has deteriorated, and that he lacks understanding of the proceedings.

“He thinks because I am appointed by the federal court, that I can’t do this,” Shank said afterward, adding Ahmed has filed numerous appeals he does not believe were properly ruled on, so he is trying to get the federal courts to take jurisdiction in a number of court cases.

“He’s just getting the concepts of what a state court and a federal court are confused,” she said.

Shank said it is unclear whether Ahmed’s goal is to represent himself in this matter.

No execution date has currently been set.

During the proceedings, Belmont County Prosecutor Kevin Flanagan said there was a question of whether Ahmed wanted his counsel appointed.

“The initial issue here is, did Mr. Nawaz Ahmed want this case to move forward in the first place?” Flanagan said. “This court has to at some point determine whether or not Mr. Ahmed wants to move forward, and that, based on the appeal your honor, is a resounding ‘no.'”

Afterward, Flanagan further elaborated.

“That is based on a very new statute, one that came about about a year ago indicating that if you were seriously mentally ill at the time of the killings, you could not now be executed by the State of Ohio. We appeared today and argued against that,” Flanagan said.

He added that he, then-prosecutor Frank Pierce and Robert Quirk represented the state in the original trial.

“Nawaz Ahmed was not seriously mentally ill at the time of the killings and we have proven that in front of the jury and Judge (Jennifer) Sargus at the time, and made those same arguments here today,” Flanagan said.

Flanagan pointed out the implications of the mental health filing.

“What ultimately he was arguing is that, if in fact this court would find that he was seriously mentally ill the only thing this court could do is convert his death sentence to that which is life without parole, and if you do that, you give up any claims of innocence, and that’s why Nawaz Ahmed was vehemently against this being filed on his behalf, because he has always maintained for the last 23 years his innocence.”

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