A former Northfield Center man convicted of aggravated murder and sentenced to life in prison in January 2007 for killing a Twinsburg Township woman in front of her 3-year-old son in 1992 may get a third trial.
A July 10 decision by the U.S. Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals in Cincinnati sends the case of Willard McCarley, now 51, back to a federal judge with the U.S. District Court, Northern District of Ohio, for consideration.
McCarley’s attorney, Melissa Prendergast of the Ohio Public Defenders Office, did not return a call seeking comment.
The U.S. appellate court’s decision was based on a violation of McCarley’s Sixth Amendment right to confront a witness, according to the July 10 ruling from Judge Bernice B. Donald.
On Jan. 20, 1992, Charlene Puffenbarger, 26, a Ray Court resident and McCarley’s ex-girlfriend, was found by a neighbor, strangled and beaten on a couch in her apartment.
Summit County prosecutors alleged over two trials in February 2005 and January 2007 that McCarley committed the murder to avoid paying child support to Puffenbarger for a son they had together.
However, three Sixth Circuit judges found that much of the state’s case in the January 2007 trial was based on hearsay testimony from a child psychologist, who testified about statements made to her by Puffenbarger’s son, then 3, who witnessed the murder.
Since McCarley’s defense team never had an opportunity to depose or cross examine Puffenbarger’s son, this violated McCarley’s right to confront witnesses against him, the U.S. Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled July 10.
McCarley was not arrested until 12 years after the murder, in March 2004, after the Summit County Sheriff’s Office discovered new DNA evidence in the case — skin cells that matched McCarley on a leather belt prosecutors say was used in the strangulation.
Following a week-long trial in February 2005, McCarley was convicted of aggravated murder by a Summit County Court of Common Pleas jury and sentenced to life in prison by Judge Marvin Shapiro.
In March 2006, Ohio’s Ninth District Court of Appeals granted McCarley a second trial, overturning the February 2005 verdict and life sentence because a comment Shapiro made to a witness during the first trial possibly prejudiced the witness.
McCarley was convicted for a second time in January 2007 of aggravated murder and again sentenced to life in prison by Shapiro. McCarley continued to maintain his innocence during this sentencing, saying his conviction was “based on lies and fabricated evidence.”
McCarley then appealed the second verdict to Ohio’s Ninth District Court of Appeals in February 2007 — an appeal that was denied by the Ninth District in 2007 and then reversed July 10 by the U.S. Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals.
The Ohio Supreme Court also dismissed a direct appeal by McCarley in June 2007 for a third trial.
McCarley remains in jail at the Grafton Correctional Institution.