Supreme Court Puts Robert Van Hook Back on Death Row

By Kamika Dunlap on November 10, 2009 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

The U.S. Supreme Court Monday reinstated the death sentence of a Ohio killer convicted of murdering a man he met in a gay bar.

This overturns a decision last year by a federal appeals court in Cincinnati that ruled the lawyers who represented Robert J. Van Hook, 49, during the sentencing phase of his trial in 1985 failed to do an effective job.

The Supreme Court reversed a Court of Appeals decision which relied on American Bar Association guidelines for capital cases passed in 2003 that expanded on 1980 standards broadly outlining defense counsel's duties in all criminal cases.

But these guidelines came out 20 years after Van Hook's trial. And after the Supreme Court's decision, that won't help the death row inmate.

Supreme Court justices were critical of the Court of Appeals ruling, saying that it was "clear that Van Hook's attorneys met the constitutional minimum of competence.''

In addition, the Supreme Court made clear that cases about assistance of counsel must look to the prevailing legal norms at the time of trial, not to norms that became standard after the fact.

Keith Yeazel, the Columbus attorney who filed the appeal on behalf of Van Hook, said he plans to return to the 6th Circuit, raising the possibility that Van Hook's death sentence could still be set aside, the Columbus Dispatch reports.

Prosecutors had accused Van Hook of luring David Self from a gay bar in Cincinnati back to Self's apartment. Van Hook strangled him until he was unconscious before stabbing him to death.

He then fled to Florida where he was captured and confessed. Van Hook was convicted and sentenced to death.

Van Hook's lawyer Keith Yeazel says another appeal issue is pending before the 6th Circuit.

Ohio Attorney General Richard Cordray says he was pleased with the court's decision and that the death sentence is appropriate due to the "horrific nature" of the crime.


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