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9th District rejects woman’s claim that husband’s asphyxiation death was suicide

Legal News Reporter

Published: June 11, 2018

An Avon Lake woman convicted of killing her estranged husband did not convince the 9th District Court of Appeals that the victim actually committed suicide.

Case summary indicates Jeanne Harrington called Avon Lake police on Aug. 16, 2011, claiming her husband had killed himself.

Officers discovered him lying on a couch with his head tightly wrapped in plastic. They also found an apparent type written suicide note that had been signed in ink with the victim’s name.

The coroner found the victim died of asphyxiation, but was not able to determine whether his death was a homicide or suicide.

Yet after a lengthy investigation, Harrington was charged with murder, felony murder, two counts of felonious assault and tampering with evidence.

A jury convicted her on all counts, and she was sentenced to life in prison with parole eligibility in 16 years.

On appeal, Harrington argued her convictions were based on insufficient evidence, despite testimony the fact that she and her husband “had a troubled relationship” and fought shortly before his death.

For instance, she noted that no lay witnesses could implicate her, her DNA was not found on the plastic wrap binding his head and the coroner was unable to conclusively rule the death a homicide.

Harrington told Sgt. Francis Tibbits she had last seen the victim around 2 a.m. that morning when they argued about money and a pending sheriff’s sale of their home. She claimed she found him in the den – where he often slept -- after coming home from shopping with her 11-year-old son.

Tibbits saw the victim lying on a couch in a semi-fetal position. Nearby was a brochure about living wills and the note, which stated, “This is the only possible way I will be able to feed and provide for my family and keep a roof over their head.”

Harrington told the officer their argument had become “a little physical,” so she had used a stun gun on him. She did not make a police call for the alleged domestic violence.

Tibbits testified the department had frequently responded to the home for domestic disputes, as well as suicide attempts involving Harrington.

Tibbits described Harrington’s demeanor during questioning as “very calm and matter of fact.”

After the coroner told her there was proof the victim had been stunned numerous times, she responded, “Well, I used it about 20 times. I zapped him all over.”

Harrington said she may have touched either the plastic wrap or the note.

She also told officials the victim “could not support her” and that she knew he had life insurance policies worth about $375,000.

Police Sgt. Victoria Rightnour testified Harrington had light bruising on her arms and a mark on her finger the defendant claimed was due to her husband having bitten her.

Rightnour described Harrington’s behavior as “bizarre,” as she only became emotional when discussing their son or financial situation.

Multiple officers said they saw no signs of a struggle at the home.

Rightnour recalled that Harrington had threatened to kill herself in 2007 by putting a plastic bag over her head.

Dr. Frank Miller, Chief Deputy coroner for Lorain County, told jurors the victim had a high amount of Benadryl in his system, which could have dulled his reactions. He added that the drug could be mixed with food, and the husband’s stomach contained a partially-digested meal.

A female acquaintance who lived with Harrington for a month testified the defendant referred to her husband only as “idiot brain,” and that she frequently said she didn’t want him around, but could not afford a divorce.

Harrington often asked the woman, a pharmacy technician, about different drugs and how much it would take to kill the victim.

The woman said she called police after learning of the man’s death.

Another acquaintance testified that Harrington repeatedly talked about killing the victim.

The state’s handwriting expert could not conclusively say whether the signature on the note belonged to the victim or had been forged.

Other state experts said the victim did not appear suicidal despite his marital and financial problems.

The appellate panel rejected all of Harrington’s arguments.

“The State set forth evidence that she blamed the victim for their financial troubles, but had a habit of overspending that continued well after his death,” 9th District Judge Donna Carr stated in her 3-0 opinion.

In addition, Judge Carr noted, “The State presented a wealth of circumstantial evidence tending to show that she engaged in an altercation with the victim shortly before he died, that the circumstances surrounding his death were highly suspicious, and that she had a financial motive to murder him.”

Appellate judges Thomas Teodosio and Lynne Callahan concurred.

The case is cited State v. Harrington, 2018-Ohio-2088.