Cop-killer law lowers death-penalty threshold

(CLEVELAND) -- A man convicted of killing a city police officer is now on death row because of a recent legal wrinkle in state law that was inspired by the slaying of another Cleveland patrolman.

A 1998 law governing cases in which police officers are killed in action took hold for the first time Thursday when Cuyahoga County Common Pleas Judge Daniel Gaul sentenced Quisi Bryan, 30, to death for killing Patrolman Wayne Leon last June during a traffic stop.

Backers say the law, enacted after the killer of another officer escaped capital punishment three years ago, should be a warning against pulling a weapon on an officer.

Leon suspected that Bryan's temporary license plates had been altered. Bryan, wanted for a parole violation, shot the officer in the face when he ignored a warning not to touch his police radio - a step that Bryan knew would lead to Leon learning about his criminal record.

Under the old law, prosecutors would have had to prove that Bryan had planned to kill Leon, to wind up with a sentence of death.

But now, because the victim was a police officer, all prosecutors had to prove was that Bryan intended to kill Leon when the slaying occurred.

A Cuyahoga County jury, in fact, acquitted Bryan of acting with prior calculation, but still convicted him of aggravated murder with death penalty specifications. They ruled Bryan intended to kill Leon when he pulled the trigger and the victim was a police officer.

That option wasn't available three years ago when the killer of Patrolman Hilary Cudnik was sentenced to 32 years to life in prison.

Jurors convicted Cudnik's killer of murder but spared him the death penalty because one juror wasn't convinced that Leonard Hughes, then 37, had planned to kill the officer during a car chase.

Gary Suhadolnik, who sponsored the tougher law in the Senate, said the measure grew out of discussions involving himself, Cudnik's family and the prosecutor who handled the Hughes trial.

''We saw this as a problem with the law and it needed to be fixed,'' said Suhadolnik, now the state commerce director.

As for the Bryan case, ''This was exactly the kind of circumstance in which the jury should have the option of the death penalty,'' Suhadolnik said.

Mike Taylor, a Columbus police officer and secretary of the 24,000-member Fraternal Order of Police of Ohio, said the real test of the tougher law will be whether it becomes a deterrent.

Maybe, Taylor said, ''People knowing this will think twice about even pulling a gun on an officer. If something goes wrong, there will be a price to pay.''

Jonathan Entin, a Case Western Reserve University law professor, said making it easier to execute police killers was the goal of the law.

But the automatic appeal of Bryan's case to the Ohio Supreme Court might raise the constitutional issue of whether police killers are being treated differently than other murderers, Entin said.

''I can see the argument that we are treating criminal defendants based on whom they are found to have killed,'' he said. Still, Entin said he wasn't sure whether the argument would succeed.

Gaul imposed the death penalty on Bryan, but said Friday he did so only because he felt duty bound under the law. He personally opposes capital punishment, he said.

Gaul also agreed with Entin that the enhanced status of police officers as victims under the Ohio death penalty law is bound to be challenged in higher courts. He wouldn't predict how that will eventually turn out.

(iSyndicate; Nov. 18, 2000; Dayton Daily News). Terms and Conditions: Copyright(c) 2000 LEXIS-NEXIS, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights Reserved.

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