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Judge Betleski recuses self from Chapman case

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ELYRIA - Lorain County Common Pleas Judge Mark Betleski on Friday removed himself from the case of convicted killer Justin Chapman.

Kenneth Lieux, Chapman's lawyer, had asked the judge to take himself off the case in the wake of a 9th District Court of Appeals decision that said it appeared Betleski had punished Chapman with a harsher sentence because the 20-year-old had taken his case to trial instead of agreeing to a plea bargain offered by prosecutors.

Chapman was serving a 30-years-to-life prison term when the appeals court threw out the sentence last year.

The appeals court had previously thrown out Chapman's first conviction on murder and other charges stemming from the April 26, 2005, shooting death of Darren English during a botched robbery because of concerns over a plea deal prosecutors cut with Chapman's cousin, Julian Smith, in the case.

After the first trial, in 2007, Betleski imposed a sentence of 38 years to life.

Betleski said Friday during that hearing that he believes he has sentenced Chapman fairly in the past and could do so again, but didn't want to risk the appeals court overturning the case a third time.

"I have not penalized Mr. Chapman for trying his case," Betleski said.

Prosecutors had offered numerous plea offers to Chapman, who was 14 when he, English and Smith forced their way into the Lorain home of small-time drug dealer William "B.J." Fiske III and tried to rob him.

Had Chapman taken the original offer from prosecutors, his case would have remained in the juvenile system and he would have been held in state custody until his 21st birthday, which is July 15.

Smith's plea bargain netted him a 13-year sentence in exchange for his testimony against Chapman.

During both of Chapman's trials, Smith testified that after the trio had forced their way into the home, English began struggling with Fiske. Smith testified he heard a shot and opened fire himself, but his gun jammed.

Fiske was hit six times but lived and continued to struggle with English as the would-be robbers fled. Smith testified he ran back and hit Fiske with his gun to get him to let go of English.

Prosecutors said during the trial that one of the bullets that Chapman fired hit English in the heart and lungs, an injury that killed English.

Assistant County Prosecutor Laura Dezort told Betleski during Friday's hearing that there was not reason for the judge to remove himself from the case.

"It's the state's position that this court conducted a fair trial both times and really imposed a sentence that was eminently fair to this defendant," Dezort said.

Lieux said after the hearing that given the history of the case, Betleski made the right call stepping aside.

Betleski ordered a presentence report on the case prepared for the new judge who has not yet been assigned to the case, according to court records.

Contact Brad Dicken at 329-7147 or bdicken@chroniclet.com.



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