On July 22, 2011, Anthony Edward Sowell was found guilty of all but two of the 85 charges of murder, rape, and kidnapping that were initially laid against him. The charges include the murders of the eleven women whose bodies were found in his Cleveland, Ohio duplex in 2009. While Sowell had initially pleaded "not guilty by reason of insanity" this was later changed to simply "not guilty". Having been found guilty, the only question real question was whether he would face the death penalty. The sentencing phase led to a standoff between expert witnesses arguing whether Sowell can be considered mentally fit for execution or if he is psychotic.
Born in 1959, Anthony Sowell joined the U.S. Marine Corps at the age of nineteen and served for seven years prior to receiving an honourable discharge in 1985. In addition to being promoted to Corporal, he earned numerous commendations including a Good Conduct medal and two letters of appreciation. After leaving the military, Sowell's life went downhill and he spent fifteen years in prison for attempted rape following a violent incident in 1989.
Released in 2005, Sowell worked in a factory for two years before collecting unemployment benefits. Living at his Mount Pleasant duplex with his stepmother following his release, neighbours found nothing remarkable about him aside from his reclusive nature and the unpleasant odour emanating from his home. After his stepmother was sent to a nursing home in 2007, Sowell lived in the house alone and the first of the homicides was later believed to have occurred that year. Despite complaints about the odour (which caused at least one tenant of the duplex to move), Sowell insisted that it came from a nearby sausage shop. Everything changed following an incident in September, 2009 when a woman complained to police that Sowell had choked and raped her in his home. When police arrived at his home with a warrant for his arrest, Sowell was not at home and police launched a search of the house. When the first search revealed two bodies on the floor of his living room, a citywide search was launched. Sowell was located and arrested for murder two days later. When asked about the bodies, his only response was "Oh, those". He acknowledged meeting women and bringing them to his home but refused to admit to the murders.
A careful forensic search of the house turned up evidence of eight more bodies, buried in the basement or concealed in crawl spaces in the house. Several of the bodies were found in pieces and carefully wrapped in plastic. The skull of an eleventh victim was found wrapped in plastic in a red bucket. Of the eleven victims, only eight have been identified through DNA evidence while police are still investigating missing persons reports dating back to Sowell's 2005 release for clues to the identities of the remaining bodies. All of the known victims were African American women who had gone missing from the Cleveland area and who were either transient or had a history of drug abuse. In some cases, relatives of the victims did not report them missing until publicity surrounding the discovery of the bodies began. In those cases where cause of death could be determined, death was believed to be due to strangulation. East Cleveland police have also investigated cold cases dating back to the 1980s and the FBI has also been investigating unsolved murders of women in cities where Sowell once lived.
Many of the sixty-two prosecution witnesses who testified against Sowell included women who had been assaulted but managed to escape. In the final summation, the prosecution described Sowell as a "vile and disgusting" serial killer and the defense was primarily limited to criticism of the police handling of the case. Sowell appeared indifferent as the verdict was read against him although relatives of the victims wept openly. Although the question of guilt was settled, the issue that followed during the sentencing hearing was whether Anthony Sowell merited the death penalty for his crimes. During the two-month sentencing hearing, Sowell presented a brief statement apologizing for his actions although jurors later indicated that the statement had no impact on them and that it sounded rehearsed. While defense lawyer, John Parker, presented evidence from at least one defense expert arguing that Sowell was psychotic and the victim of a difficult childhood, this was countered by prosecution experts who disputed any psychiatric diagnosis. For his final summation, Prosecutor Pinkey Carr argued that Sowell was "evil" and deserved the death penalty.
In a verdict read on Wednesday, August 10, the jury recommended the death penalty for Anthony Sowell. Family members of the victims greeted the decision with tears and hugging at the back of the courtroom and Judge Ambrose upheld the death penalty decision on Friday, August 12. Sowell ignored the judge when the death penalty decision was handed down and again when asked to sign a legal document. Since the death penalty decision will be automatically appealed to Illinois' Supreme Court, the process will likely take ten years or more. During the appeal process, Sowell will be held on Ohio' s Death Row at Ohio State Penitentiary in Youngstown, Ohio As of 2008, there were an estimated 3,263 prisoners awaiting execution in the United States with many prisoners waiting decades before execution. In the meantime, widespread anger over how the Sowell case was handled and the problematic relationship between poor neighbourhoods and the police will likely linger for a long time to come.