The prison inmate facing the death penalty if convicted of murdering a Miami County man last April in their cell at Lebanon Correctional Institution will be under the watchful eyes of as many as seven guards during his trial, set to begin on March 2.
Judge Donald Oda II said he would issue a written court-security order, but expected Jack Welninski, 34, would be guarded by four special officers from the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction (ODRC) and up to three sheriff’s deputies during the two-week trial.
Oda said he was still contemplating whether to allow Welninski to have one hand free to take notes, although secured with two shocking devices, leg irons and handcuffs to guard against against violent action or an escape attempt during the trial in Warren County Common Pleas Court.
“Once he is here, I anticipate there will be some reduced amount of restraint,” Oda said during a hearing Wednesday. “I am very concerned about the prejudicial effect” on the jury that could be deciding whether to add Welninski to Ohio’s Death Row.
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Welninski has been held in Ohio’s supermax prison since the death of Kevin Nill, 40, of Piqua, less than an hour after they were put together in a prison cell outside Lebanon. Oda indicated he would allow Welninski to wear street clothes concealing the security precautions during the trial.
Welninski is serving a sentence scheduled to expire on Nov. 22, 2112, for attempted murder of a police officer, as well as felonious assault, carrying a concealed weapon and possession of a firearm in a liquor establishment in Wood County.
On April 23, he allegedly used a bandage intended to immobilize a broken arm to strangle to death Nill, who was serving a short prison sentence for attempted domestic violence.
During Wednesday’s hearing, the judge ordered removed a “black box” used to limit Welninski’s mobility and prevent him from accessing keyholes in handcuffs, according to the state prison’s director of high-risk transports.
His lawyers said the device was cutting off Welninski’s circulation and prevented him from moving close enough to the defense table to obscure other security measures in place and confer with his lawyers.
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“I’m not asking for much. Can you get this box off me?” Welninski said to Oda.
The device was removed before potential jurors, among more than 200 called for the case, were judged on claims of hardships that they should be excused from the trial. Full jury selection process would be the first phase of the trial.
Later in the hearing, Jay DeBold, ODRC’s regional special operations commander, explained how under new risk classifications set up by the state prison system in May 2019 for transport of inmates like Welninski, extra precautions were taken.
In addition to the crimes that put him in prison and Nill’s alleged murder, Welninski used a sharpened toothbrush to stab another inmate and assaulted guards, DeBold said.
Since being held in the Ohio State Penitentiary, the state’s highest security prison, Welninski had obtained and used razor blades in a suicide attempt.
“It was a serious attempt,” DeBold said.
Welninski is also part of a prison gang and “a person more desperate, don’t have a lot to lose,” DeBold said in response to questions from prosecutors.
DeBold said he would not recommend limiting security precautions in the courtroom, suggesting Welninski would be able to write while handcuffed. He warned allowing one hand free could result in a situation where the cuffing system could be used “almost like a set of brass knuckles” by Welninski.
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Defense lawyer Ryan DeBra asked DeBold why Welninski wasn’t reclassified as more violent until Nill was killed.
“If we reclassified every inmate that got into a fight…” DeBold said. “We have staff assaults every day in prisons unfortunately.”
Lt. Sean Embleton, in charge of courthouse security in Warren County, expressed concerns about Welninski getting violent or attempting escape after studying the layout of the system in Lebanon.
“I worry about the length of the trial,” Embleton said. “We will be a step behind whatever he does.”
Embleton also noted Welninski’s concern with violence escalation.
“He operates with absolutely no regard for human life,” he added.
DeBra urged Oda to dial back the security, noting the state officers “look like Navy Seals.”
He noted a seven-person security force was “two-thirds of the jury” and was likely to “severely impact” the jury’s expectation of presuming Welninski innocent until proven guilty.
Oda told Welninski he was leaning toward reducing the security precautions “until you give me a reason not to.”
He urged Welninski against quick movements “so that you don’t get everybody worked up,” but indicated there would be no prohibition of plain-clothes officers sitting with the public in the courtroom gallery.
Assistant County Prosecutor Steven Knippen said his office had yet to respond to a defense offer of a guilty plea to aggravated murder in exchange for an agreed sentence of life in prison.
The lawyers are scheduled to meet once more on Feb. 24, before the trial.