ELYRIA — A jury now holds Elliott Kirkland’s fate in its hands, deciding whether to send the Lorain man to death row or recommend he spend what could amount to the rest of his life behind prison bars.
Testimony began Tuesday in the penalty phase of Kirkland’s trial.
Once it has heard all the evidence of aggravating and mitigating circumstances and factors in the penalty phase, the jury will be sequestered during its deliberations over Kirkland’s fate.
The maximum penalty is death, though if the jury does not recommend it, it will be up to Lorain County Common Pleas Judge James Miraldi to choose between life without parole, or life with parole eligibility after 20, 25 or 30 years.
In her opening, Assistant Lorain County Prosecutor Laura Dezort told the jury that the crime was particularly heinous because Kirkland killed 38-year-old Jimmie Holland Jr. in the victim’s Lorain apartment on Aug. 29, 2016.
“It was the middle of the night, the victim was in his home and the defendant snuck in ... and ultimately killed” Holland, she said.
The jury on Jan. 24 found Kirkland guilty on 10 felony charges, including aggravated murder, for shooting Holland three times and killing him inside his apartment at Ninth Street and Lexington Avenue. Kirkland and several others believed Holland was a drug dealer with a large amount of cash on hand, while family members said Holland, a father of four, was paid to test video games and never sold drugs.
Testimony Tuesday revealed that Kirkland was born in 1989 to a 16-year-old mother who did not raise him, turned to drugs and prostitution and developed schizophrenia after he was born. Kirkland never knew his biological father, who is believed to be a man from his mother’s neighborhood on Cleveland’s east side with 23 other children with various women, prosecutors and defense attorneys said.
Raised by his maternal grandmother, Paula Scranton, Kirkland lived in her government-subsidized housing project until he left — or was kicked out, depending on the point of view — at age 15. All the while, he was poor and was bullied and picked on by other African-American children for being light-skinned, his grandmother testified.
Kirkland joined a gang, had only two legitimate jobs between the age of 15 and 28, both of which he lost due to his behavior — he allegedly sexually harassed a fellow restaurant worker he was supposed to be training and showed up drunk and nauseous at another job, prosecutors said — and frequently lied or manipulated those in his life.
“Over and over people tried to help him, and he refused to cooperate,” Dezort told the jury, saying Kirkland was the bully who threatened people and later turned to dealing drugs to make money. Court, mental health and school interventions did not work, she said.
“The defendant continued to do whatever he wanted to do,” Dezort told the jury.
Defense attorney David Doughten painted another picture: A child who had no chance given what life threw at him from a very young age, who missed a major chunk of kindergarten and repeated both first and fifth grade, according to testimony.
“Much of what the prosecutor said is factually accurate,” he told the jury, “but there’s more background to it.”
“Every day” was a struggle for survival in the King Kennedy projects where Kirkland grew up, Doughten said, from fights to poverty to drugs to sex crimes. He was bullied, but his grandmother testified that she told him: “Somebody hits you, hit ’em back!”
“It was survival,” Scranton testified. “That’s what they do in the projects, to see who’s the toughest, the hardest.”
She said while Kirkland did “OK” in school as a child, he probably only went after a teacher one time, an incident Assistant Prosecutor Tony Cillo asked her about, “because of something the teacher did.”
As for missing a lot of school — Kirkland missed 27 days in kindergarten alone, testimony showed — Scranton told Cillo that she tried her best, but: “You know the saying ‘You can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make him drink?’”
“I take it Elliott’s the horse in this situation?” Cillo replied.
“No, he’s the human being, sweetie,” Scranton shot back.
Scranton also testified that she did not recall hearing that her former husband sexually abused Kirkland. During a quick break, she waved to Kirkland as he sat at the defense table, and he waved back.
Kirkland was so embarrassed of his mother’s descent into drugs and mental illness, Doughten and forensic neuropsychologist Dr. Galit Askenazi told the jury, that he frequently lied and told people she was dead when she was alive, just not involved in his life.
Kirkland “lied about things he was embarrassed about,” Askenazi testified, which is “very different from conning for any personal pleasure.”
Taken care of by his aunts and grandmother, Kirkland allegedly was sexually assaulted by his grandmother’s former husband at a young age and also possibly by his own mother and ended up fathering multiple children — six or seven — with four or five women. Kirkland only had consistent contact with two of those children, while there are some he has never met, according to Tuesday’s testimony.
In the three IQ tests he has taken since age 13, Kirkland scored a 68 (age 13), a 74 (age 20) and another 74 (age 28), forensic psychologist Dr. Katie Connell testified.
Askenazi testified that in her evaluation of Kirkland, he was capable of learning but had no support, role models or money to help him succeed in life. He couldn’t pass the classes to get a GED, had limited employment potential, and has a “borderline intellectual disability,” she testified.
That didn’t stop him from lying about getting an associate degree from Ashland University, about being in a gang or not having depressive hallucinations, Askenazi testified.
“I’m not disagreeing (that) he’s prone to lying,” she testified. In Kirkland’s mind, he turned to dealing drugs because it was all he could do to support his family, Askenazi testified.
“It’s a choice as far as your environment allows you to make,” she said.
As testimony at trial showed, Kirkland “definitely would go out with a lot of women,” as he “takes pride in his sexual prowess.” That shows a kind of confidence, but Askenazi also testified that Kirkland has feelings of guilt, worthlessness and depression he can’t fake.
“No one is saying this isn’t a guy who hasn’t lied a lot of times,” she testified, “but he really wishes this wasn’t his life. He feels regret. He is remorseful for breaking the law, but he said he was just dealing with the life he was given.”
Because the Lorain County Justice Center is closed today and Thursday due to the weather, testimony in the penalty phase resumes in Miraldi’s courtroom at 9 a.m. Friday.
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