Saturday, November 5, 2011
Brian Muha and Aaron Land
There have been 10 lonely Christmases and 10 missed birthdays since the families of Brian Muha and Aaron Land first entered a courtroom to face the man accused of kidnapping and killing the young men on a wooded hillside in Washington County.
This week, relatives and friends will gather for yet another confrontation with Terrell Yarbrough, who after years of delays will stand trial a second time in a second state for the slayings of the university students in 1999.
Mr. Yarbrough, 29, formerly of East Liberty, was convicted of 12 counts, including aggravated murder, and sentenced to die nine years ago in Ohio. A jury in Steubenville found he was the triggerman in the kidnap-slayings of Mr. Land, 20, of Philadelphia, and Mr. Muha, 18, of Westerville, Ohio.
Weeks earlier, another jury in Steubenville had convicted his co-defendant, Nathan Herring, of Steubenville, of aggravated murder and other charges. Mr. Herring was sentenced to life in prison. The men also were convicted of carjacking a Squirrel Hill woman.
The case initially sparked a jurisdictional battle before prosecutors in Ohio and Pennsylvania eventually concluded that the slayings and carjacking resulted from a series of crimes that began in Steubenville with the kidnappings of Mr. Muha and Mr. Land. Prosecutors opted to hold one trial for each defendant in Ohio rather than trials in both states, saying it would be more efficient and compassionate for the victims' families.
But the Ohio Supreme Court in 2004 overturned the convictions for murder and conspiracy after reviewing Mr. Yarbrough's case, as it does in all death-penalty proceedings. The court ruled that the case should have been tried in Pennsylvania, where the bodies of Mr. Muha and Mr. Land were found.
The Ohio Supreme Court upheld Mr. Yarbrough's convictions for kidnapping, robbery and other related offenses, for which he currently is serving a 59-year sentence in that state. Mr. Herring also will be retried in Washington County for homicide and conspiracy after Mr. Yarbrough's trial concludes.
If convicted of first-degree murder, Mr. Yarbrough again could face the death penalty.
Mr. Yarbrough and Mr. Herring are accused of robbing and kidnapping Mr. Land and Mr. Muha, who were students at Franciscan University in Steubenville, after breaking into their off-campus apartment on May 31, 1999. Mr. Land and Mr. Muha, who planned to attend summer classes, were forced into the Chevrolet sport utility vehicle owned by Mr. Muha's mother.
Investigators maintain their abductors drove them east into Pennsylvania, then shot them on a hill off Route 22 in Robinson. Their bodies were found several days later under a thicket of wild roses near what is now the highway's intersection with the Findlay Connector.
The victims' families were shocked by the Supreme Court decision in 2004, and are frustrated at the justice system's failure to resolve the case quickly.
Since authorities moved Mr. Yarbrough to Pennsylvania for arraignment in 2006, his trial in Washington County Common Pleas Court has been postponed nine times. Most of the postponements were ordered after his lawyers sought investigators, experts and a mental-health evaluation for him.
"It became a joke, because of it constantly, constantly, being pushed back," said Mr. Muha's mother, Rachel Muha, of the Columbus suburb of Westerville, recalling the e-mails she repeatedly sent to inform relatives of trial delays. "I think it's ridiculous."
The court also had to rule on a series of pretrial skirmishes and issues pertaining to evidence and witnesses for the new trial. Three different judges have been assigned to the case at various times.
"Once it came to Pennsylvania, there was a lot of pretrial litigation," said Assistant District Attorney Michael Lucas, who will try the case.
Relatives of Mr. Muha and Mr. Land said they dread facing Mr. Yarbrough again despite the strategies they've developed over the years to manage their grief.
"The thought of sitting across from [him] is going to be very difficult for me," said Aaron Land's mother, Kathleen O'Hara, of Philadelphia. "He is still alive and my son is buried in the ground."
Before her son's slaying, Ms. O'Hara was a psychotherapist. She has become a grief counselor and is the author of "A Grief Like No Other: Surviving the Violent Death of Someone You Love."
Her book, which Ms. O'Hara said began her healing process, has been her vehicle to keep her son's memory alive through lectures, book signings and helping other victims of violent crimes from as far away as Ireland and South Africa.
"I try to take my experience and make it help other people," she said. "That's what keeps Aaron alive."
Spurred by testimony during Mr. Yarbrough's first trial, Mr. Muha's family has channeled its grief into helping neglected and underprivileged children.
During the penalty phase of Mr. Yarbrough's trial in Steubenville, witnesses and evidence pointed to a childhood spent shuttling between relatives, a drug-addicted mother and a father who eventually died of AIDS.
At the time, Mr. Yarbrough's attorneys said he'd never visited a dentist, and had been so neglected that they likened him to "a feral child" who was "like Romulus and Remus, raised by wolves." Witnesses in Mr. Herring's trial also testified of his apparent breakdown and drug use after a beloved older brother died.
Ms. Muha said she doesn't believe the men's pasts excuse the crimes they are accused of committing, but their experiences may help to explain their behavior.
"That just haunted me," she said. "They weren't born killers. They became that."
Through a scholarship fund set up in her son's memory, Ms. Muha began a program several years ago that aims to provide better lives for children in inner-city neighborhoods of Columbus.
So far, 100 children are enrolled in the after-school and summer program. Last week, Ms. Muha said she and other volunteers delivered 37 beds to children who previously had been sleeping on floors.
"This is just wonderful work for me to do," said Ms. Muha, who said her son, Brian, aspired to become a doctor and work in under-served areas.
Her other son, Chris, now 30, became so interested in the legal system during the previous trials that he enrolled in law school at Yale University. He graduated on the seventh anniversary of his brother's death.
When a jury is seated and testimony begins this week, Mr. Yarbrough's attorneys said they will argue that he was not involved.
"I believe the evidence will show that Terrell Yarbrough didn't kill anybody," said his lawyer, Kenneth Haber, of Pittsburgh. He declined to elaborate, but said he doesn't believe evidence shows his client was the triggerman, as the jury in Steubenville concluded.
Mr. Haber said he plans to introduce evidence, such as IQ tests, to prove that his client is on the borderline of mental retardation.
"Terrell has tested in the mentally retarded range since his grade-school years," Mr. Haber said.
Mr. Lucas said he plans to call about 30 witnesses, almost all of whom are Ohio law enforcement officers. The largest contingent, he said, will come from the Steubenville Police Department, which initially investigated the case.
Mr. Lucas said police had no trouble recollecting details of the crime.
"They went through two trials," he said. "They've already been down that road."