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Jailed for life at 19 in students' killing

Thursday, August 31, 2000

By Cindi Lash, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

STEUBENVILLE, Ohio -- Biting his lip and wiping tear-streaked cheeks, Nathan Herring listened to his victims' families pray that he'd spend eternal life in heaven, then heard a judge send him to jail for the rest of his life on earth.

  Rachel Muha speaks at the sentencing hearing for Nathan Herring, convicted of murdering her son. (V.W.H. Campbell Jr., Post-Gazette)

In an emotional hearing that left almost no one in the crammed courtroom dry-eyed, a jury yesterday recommended that Herring be sentenced to life in prison without parole for the deaths of Franciscan University students Aaron Land and Brian Muha. A judge complied after hearing the students' loved ones speak to Herring for more than an hour, sometimes through sobs.

"You put a sword through my heart and I cannot imagine how you did such a thing," said Land's mother, Kathleen O'Hara, who gazed at a photograph of her smiling, blue-eyed son while reminiscing about his academic successes, his volunteerism and his devotion to his family and Catholic faith.

"You murdered goodness. But know that you did not murder his spirit. Now I hope the mercy of God reaches you. "

After deliberating for five hours and 30 minutes, the jury returned its verdict, rejecting the maximum penalty of death in the electric chair as well as lesser sentences of life without parole for 25 years and life without parole for 30 years. Under Ohio law, jurors recommend a verdict to a trial judge, who can then impose or reduce it but cannot increase it.

Common Pleas Judge Joseph J. Bruzzese Jr., who presided over Herring's trial last week, wasted no time in imposing that sentence. After allowing the victims' families to address Herring about their grief and loss, Bruzzese sentenced Herring, 19 of Steubenville, to serve two life terms without parole -- one for each victim.

  Jefferson County Sheriff Fred Abdalla squeezes by Brian Muhaís father, Charlie, as he escorts Nathan Herring from the court after his sentencing in the deaths of Muha and Aaron Land. Seated at left is Landís brother, Michael. (V.W.H.Campbell, Post-Gazette)

Bruzzese also ordered Herring to serve an additional 65 years in prison as a result of his conviction on other charges that did not carry the death penalty. Herring has 30 days to appeal, but his attorneys yesterday said he had not decided if he would.

The jury began its deliberations on the appropriate penalty for Herring at 10:28 a.m. yesterday after Prosecuting Attorney Stephen M. Stern and defense attorney David Doughten squared off in a final debate over whether the brutality of Herring's crimes outweighed the value of his life. Jurors returned their penalty verdict at 3:58 p.m.

That same jury of nine women and three men on Friday took 10 hours to find Herring guilty of 12 counts of aggravated murder, as well as kidnapping, aggravated robbery, aggravated burglary, grand theft auto and receiving stolen property. Jurors also found him guilty of committing those crimes with a firearm -- which automatically added 12 years to his prison term -- but did not find him guilty of being the principal offender, the gunman who pulled the trigger.

The charges stemmed from the May 31, 1999, kidnappings and fatal shootings of Land and Muha and from the carjacking of a Squirrel Hill woman later that day. A second suspect, Terrell Rhaim Yarbrough, 19, of East Liberty, will stand trial next month.

Land, 20, of Philadelphia, and Muha, 18, of Westerville, Ohio, were in Steubenville to attend summer classes at Franciscan University. Four days after they were abducted, their badly decomposed bodies were found atop a wild-rose covered hillside off Route 22 in Robinson, Washington County.

Jurors were red-eyed but composed when they filed into the courtroom to present their verdict. Their tears flowed unchecked, however, when the parents, brothers and other relatives of Land and Muha then stood at a wooden lectern to give voice to the heartbreak, bewilderment and rage they've experienced since the slayings.

Muha's father, Charlie, sobbed as he told of answering the telephone call that every parent fears, informing him that his son was missing and feared dead. Recalling how his big brother, Aaron, guided him after the death of their father, 16-year-old Michael Land said his brother's death deprived him of a father figure and role model as well.

Muha's grandmother, Betty Ganim, did not cry, but her voice dripped acid as she told Herring she believed he was possessed by Satan when he marched Muha and Land to their deaths.

But with the pent-up anger also came talk of forgiveness and pleas for Herring to repent and recommit his life to God.

Citing testimony from witnesses who said Herring sank into a self-destructive spiral of drug abuse after the drowning death of a beloved older brother, Muha's older brother, Chris, said he understood that pain because he, too, had experienced it.

"It's because of you that I lost my brother, that I am going through what you went through," Chris Muha told Herring while a photograph of the two grinning Muha brothers flashed onto a screen across the courtroom.

While acknowledging his anger, grief and doubt about the sincerity of Herring's apology for his role in the slayings, Chris Muha said he has prayed that Herring would seek and obtain God's forgiveness. As he spoke, Herring bowed his head and pawed at his streaming eyes with a wadded tissue.

"My brother and your brother are in heaven. All that remains is for us to become brothers, for you to become like my brother," Chris Muha said. "But you are nothing like him. I have been praying for you since May 31 and I want so much to believe you are sorry. But until you accept your punishment and become truly sorry, you disgrace the memory of your brother and mine."

In a clear, soothing voice, Muha's mother, Rachel, chided Herring for not taking responsibility for his actions by pleading guilty and defense witnesses "for parading in here and making excuses for you." But, calling him by his first name over and over, she also told him she'd forgiven him and pleaded with him to start his spiritual life anew.

"If you hadn't done this, I would have my Brian and you would have your freedom. But losing your freedom is not as bad as losing your soul," she said. "You took a lot of goodness out of the world. Now it's up to you to put that goodness back into the world. I'm praying for you, Nathan, and God bless you."

After the hearing, Rachel Muha declined to comment on the jury verdict, saying she did not want to influence the outcome of Yarbrough's trial. But she said true justice would not occur until "the good Brian and Aaron would have brought to the earth is replaced."

O'Hara said she believed that Herring had forfeited his life because of his crimes but was not disappointed that the jury did not recommend a death sentence.

"I left it to God and the jury and the jury made its decision. [Executing him] won't bring my son back," she said. "I have to believe maybe there's something there [in Herring] to redeem," she said.

Herring's attorneys left the courtroom without comment after the hearing.

Stern, the prosecutor, said he, too, was not disappointed in the verdict even though he had called for a death sentence.

"The jury determined that he was not the primary offender, but was an aider and abettor of these crimes," he said. "So [the jurors] arrived at the appropriate penalty for what they concluded."

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