- Associated Press - Thursday, July 24, 2014

AKRON, Ohio (AP) - Prosecutors in Akron say a county judge presiding over an aggravated murder trial is biased, and they asked the Ohio Supreme Court on Thursday to remove her from the case.

Summit County prosecutors want the court to disqualify Judge Mary Margaret Rowlands because they say she asked them to drop their plans to seek the death penalty in the case against Deshanon Haywood. The request came the same say opening statements were to begin in Haywood’s trial.

The judge declined to comment on the request. Her office issued a statement saying she would file a response with the Ohio Supreme Court on Friday.

Haywood is charged with multiple counts of aggravated murder, aggravated robbery and kidnapping in the drug-related slayings of four people in March 2013. He has pleaded not guilty.

A jury found Haywood’s co-defendant, Derrick Brantley, guilty of those same charges in June, but voted not to allow the judge to sentence him to death. Rowlands instead sentenced him to four consecutive life terms.

Brad Gessner, chief counsel for the county prosecutor’s office, wrote in an affidavit that he received a call from the judge after Brantley’s sentencing. Gessner wrote that Rowlands said she did not think the victims’ families would object if prosecutors dropped plans to seek the death penalty against Haywood.

Gessner also wrote that Rowlands said a trial without death penalty specifications would take two weeks compared to eight weeks for a trial that included the possibility of capital punishment.

Brian LoPrinzi, lead prosecutor in the Haywood case, wrote in his affidavit that the judge had called him and Haywood’s attorneys into her chambers after a hearing and asked him to drop the death penalty. LoPrinzi wrote that Rowlands said such a sentence would be thrown out on appeal.

Gessner and LoPrinzi wrote in their motion to disqualify Rowlands that the judge had shown bias toward the state in breach of judicial canons. The prosecutors said Rowlands also showed her bias when she did not allow LoPrinzi to remove a potential juror who had said in a questionnaire that he opposed the death penalty. They wrote that Rowlands said she would not allow LoPrinzi’s “peremptory challenge” because the juror was black and so is Haywood.

Three of the 12 jurors are black, including the one LoPrinzi tried to challenge, as are two of the four alternate jurors, LoPrinzi said.

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