METAMORA — Flowers, figurines, and crosses adorn a well-tended memorial along County Road 7, near where Sierah Joughin’s body was found. A field once high with corn at the time she disappeared is now barren.
In the days after Ms. Joughin went missing, volunteer search parties combed the countryside.
They flagged down motorists and handed out flyers with her photograph. Community members held vigils in her honor and Evergreen High School became a temporary command center for the search effort.
The trial of James D. Worley, accused of murdering Sierah Joughin, is slated to begin Monday, March 12, 2018, in Wauseon.
It all ended in tragedy on July 22, 2016, when authorities found Ms. Joughin, 20, dead from asphyxiation and buried in a cornfield.
Now, more than 18 months later, James D. Worley, the man accused of kidnapping and killing her, will have his day in court.
Monday is expected to mark the beginning of Worley’s capital murder trial in Fulton County Common Pleas Court. He’s pleaded not guilty.
Jurors will determine his fate as they weigh the merits of the prosecution’s expected broader case: that Worley, 58, abducted Ms. Joughin from a country road as she biked home from her boyfriend’s house; that Worley then killed the University of Toledo student; that he left his victim’s body bound and gagged in a shallow grave.
Under the gray March skies in Fulton County, reminders of Ms. Joughin remain as Worley’s judgment day approaches.
In the nearby village of Lyons, a pink “Justice for Sierah” sign sits in the window of Lyons Hair Salon. Inside the shop, hairdresser Brooke Hudik, 33, said Ms. Joughin’s death has shattered a sense of safety.
“I feel like your innocence was taken away,” Mrs. Hudik said. “I feel like now everyone is on high alert. Around here, it feels like everybody knows everybody and it’s a tight little safe community, and now that security has been lost.”
Customer Valerie Snead, 62, said Ms. Joughin’s horrific slaying has changed her habits.
“I don’t walk at night anymore and I used to walk all the time,” said Ms. Snead, of Lyons. “If I do, I stay right in town on the sidewalks.”
A memorial near the spot where the body of Sierah Joughin was found is well tended, Wednesday, March 7, 2018, in Delta. The trial of James D. Worley, accused of murdering Sierah Joughin, is slated to begin Monday, March 12, 2018, in Wauseon.
Nicki Evans, 45, co-owns the bar Gus-N-Gomers in Metamora. She echoed Ms. Snead’s comments, saying the community has changed.
“I know a lot of girls that run for cross country, their moms ride behind them now on bikes to make sure they’re in pairs,” she said. “I know a lot of them that do that because they won’t let them ride by themselves.”
Many are following each and every development in the case, said Dave Newbury, 83, of Metamora.
“Everybody’s going to be paying close attention, especially in this area. She was from here and she was a nice young lady,” said Mr. Newbury, as he sipped coffee in the village’s Country Charm Cafe.
“I hope the family gets justice,” Mrs. Evans said. “If he’s innocent, he’s innocent, if he’s guilty, he’s guilty. I hope the family can put it to rest. It’s a traumatic thing to go through and I really hope they get closure.”
Worley is charged with two counts of aggravated murder — both with death-penalty specifications — as well as four counts of kidnapping, two counts each of murder, abduction, felonious assault, and having weapons while under disability, and one count each of possessing criminal tools, gross abuse of a corpse, and tampering with evidence.
He is charged with multiple counts of aggravated murder, murder, and other offenses under different sections of Ohio law.
Judge Jeffrey Robinson and attorneys for the prosecution and defense spent most of last week whittling down a pool of jurors, which will be finalized Monday.
It is anticipated that the trial — presentation of witnesses and evidence — will take the next two weeks. If Worley is found guilty of aggravated murder, a third week has been set aside for the penalty phase of the trial.
During the penalty phase, the defense will call witnesses to provide mitigating evidence, or reasons why the defendant should not receive a death sentence. These could include his upbringing and background, his mental capacity, substance abuse issues — anything that could serve to humanize the defendant and mitigate the call for the death penalty.
It is the only time in Ohio courts where a jury recommends the sentence, which must be unanimous and ultimately will be imposed by the judge.
Toledo attorney John Thebes, who has worked on several death-penalty cases but is not involved with the Worley case, said death-penalty cases are “a different animal.” The defense typically tries to lay the groundwork for its mitigation arguments during the trial phase, he said.
“You’re walking such a fine line as a lawyer because your client wants to have a very robust defense in the first phase, wants to be found not guilty, and each case is very different, but the government probably has a very, very strong case,” Mr. Thebes said. “Why else are they attempting to have this person found guilty of the death penalty?”
Nicki Evans, co-owner of Gus N Gomers, says the topic of the trial of James D. Worley, the man accused of killing 20-year-old Sierah Joughin in July, 2016, comes up frequently with patrons of her bar in Metamora.
In his experience with such cases, he said either the evidence is very strong for the prosecution or there is a strong public outcry over the case.
In recent years, fewer and fewer county prosecutors in Ohio have sought indictments with death-penalty specifications, in part because Ohio law now allows life-without-parole sentences.
Such outcomes are considered by some to be better for victims’ families, who have to endure years of appeals and court hearings after the death penalty is imposed, and better for the state, which must pay for what can be a lengthy and expensive case.
Lucas County currently has no capital cases pending, while Worley’s case is one of two on the docket in Fulton County.
James Ramey, 28, of Toledo is charged with aggravated murder with death-penalty specifications for the March 14, 2017, shooting death of his former girlfriend, Amanda Mangas, and abduction of their 10-month-old son and the victim’s stepmother. That case is set for jury trial Nov. 5 before Judge Robinson.
Worley was indicted on death-penalty specifications that allege he committed aggravated murder in the commission of kidnapping or to escape detection for another offense he committed.
Before opening statements in the Worley trial can begin, a pool of 50 potential jurors still remaining from Thursday will be cut to the final 18 on Monday morning — 12 regulars and six alternates.
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