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Killer of Franciscan U. students gets death penalty

Thursday, September 28, 2000

By Cindi Lash, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

STEUBENVILLE, Ohio -- Dry-eyed and unmoved by pleas for him to repent and to at last reveal what his victims said to him before he shot them on a marshy Washington County hilltop, convicted murderer Terrell Yarbrough dared a judge to follow a jury's recommendation and sentence him to death.

  Terrell Yarbrough reacts to hearing his death sentences yesterday. Click here for a gallery of photos from the trial. (V.W.H. Campbell Jr., Post-Gazette)

"If I'm gonna die, then let me die," Yarbrough muttered last night to Jefferson County Common Pleas Judge Joseph J. Bruzzese Jr. Seconds later, Bruzzese complied, ordering Yarbrough to die in Ohio's electric chair for the kidnapping and slaying of Franciscan University students Aaron Land and Brian Muha.

Bruzzese imposed the death sentence recommended by the jury that last week convicted Yarbrough, 20, of East Liberty, of 12 counts of aggravated murder and other charges in the May 31, 1999 abduction and slaying of Land and Muha and the carjacking of Squirrel Hill psychologist Barbara Vey.

The jury of eight women and four men issued that recommendation at 5:25 p.m. yesterday, nearly seven hours after beginning deliberations in the penalty phase of Yarbrough's trial.

Bruzzese also sentenced Yarbrough to 66 1/2 years in prison as a result of his conviction on charges of kidnapping, aggravated robbery, aggravated burglary, gross sexual imposition, grand theft auto and receiving stolen property. Yarbrough immediately told the judge he would appeal.

Read what family members had to say to Terrell Yarbrough at the trial.

Read what the victims' friends and relatives said at the murder trial of accomplice Nathan Herring


Land, 20, of Philadelphia, and Muha, 18, of Westerville, Ohio, were in Steubenville to attend summer classes at Franciscan University when they were abducted from their off-campus apartment by Yarbrough and his accomplice, Nathan Herring, 19, of Steubenville. The students then were driven into Pennsylvania in a Chevrolet Blazer stolen from Muha and shot to death.

Their bodies were found four days later, hidden under a thorn-studded wild rose bush on a hill off Route 22 in Robinson, Washington County. Herring also was convicted of 12 counts of aggravated murder and was sentenced to life in prison without parole in August.

Yarbrough sat stone-faced, tilting his wooden chair backward and rocking on its two legs while the verdicts were read. He did not weep or bury his head in his lap, as he did through much of the trial and the statements presented by relatives of the men he killed.

But his mother and sister, Leona and Stacy Yarbrough of East Liberty, and other relatives gasped aloud, then began to sob into wadded tissues and on the shoulders of their neighbors in the jammed, standing-room-only courtroom. One woman fled the courtroom, crying out that she was about to be sick.

Leona Yarbrough, too, rose to her feet as if to flee but could not make her way through the courtroom to the door. Instead, she sat back down and began to rock back and forth, her head buried in her hands. Yarbrough's aunt, LaDonne Scott of Washington, Pa., chanted "Jesus, Jesus," while other aunts, cousins and friends wept or pounded fists on their seats.

The parents, relatives and friends of the slain students sat ashen-faced until Bruzzese's bailiff, Rita Bates, completed reading the verdicts. Then, they clutched or displayed photographs of Land and Muha while, one by one, they implored Yarbrough to look them in the eye and finally give some explanation of why the students had to die.

"I keep going over and over the sequence of events, how the burglary led to them being put in the car, to being shot. It'll never make sense," said Muha's father, Charlie Muha, in a choked voice. "It's forever changed my life and the lives of my family."

As she'd also told Herring last month, Muha's grandmother, Betty Ganim, told Yarbrough she believed he was possessed by Satan. Pausing to shake off tears, she said she did not believe him when earlier in the day he had made an unsworn statement telling jurors, the judge and onlookers that he was sorry and accepted responsibility for his crime. Under Ohio law, that statement was not subject to cross-examination.

Land's mother, Kathleen O'Hara, got no response when she begged Yarbrough to tell her what her son had said to him or to God before falling dead to the ground. O'Hara also sharply criticized Yarbrough's family and attorneys for attempting to mitigate his actions by depicting him as a retarded man who could not understand the consequences of his actions and who had suffered from being neglected and abused by drug-addicted parents as a child.

"I think you should go to confession," O'Hara told Yarbrough's attorney, Peter S. Olivito, after chiding him for invoking God's name in his closing arguments.

But as they did with Herring, O'Hara and Muha's mother, Rachel Muha, also spoke of redemption and forgiveness, telling Yarbrough they would pray for him to make his peace with God in prison. As they spoke, Yarbrough's eyes reddened and he again slumped in his seat, prompting both mothers to repeatedly demand: "Look at me, Terrell."

Like Jesus, Muha and Land died on a hilltop at the hands of men who first beat and abused them, Rachel Muha said. Now, she said, she believed her son and Land were in heaven, praying that Yarbrough will repent his sins and join them there one day.

"Choose heaven, Terrell," she begged through tears, clutching the edge of the podium with white-knuckled hands. "Almighty God is showing you kindness by giving you time to change, even on death row. You can have a happy life, even in prison. Turn to God, Terrell, and I will pray for you."

The families of Land and Muha, as Catholics, initially had opposed a death penalty verdict, but last night called it a courageous and correct decision by the jury. They said they believed that Yarbrough, who since his arrest has been in fights in jail and has threatened witnesses, could hurt or kill again if he spends his life around others in prison.

Yarbrough's attorneys, Olivito and Francesca Carinci, said they respected the jury's verdict but were saddened by the ire directed at them by the victims' families.

"This was a difficult case and I don't understand the anger against people who were required to defend [Yarbrough]," said Carinci, who like Olivito is a Catholic. "It would have been impossible for them to get their pound of flesh without a trial in which he had a defense."

Leona Yarbrough, too, said she was angered by the verdict and by the characterization of her and her family by the victims' relatives.

"It's wrong for [the jury] to kill him and wrong for [the families] to kill him," she said, wiping away tears after her son was led in shackles to jail. "This family is supposed to be Christian, but I don't see that in them."

But prosecuting attorney Stephen M. Stern praised the jury for issuing the proper response to a heinous series of crimes.

"Death is not always an appropriate penalty, and I take no pleasure in this today," he said. "In this case, it was the right verdict. Maybe in some small measure it will bring closure to the victims' families, the university students and the citizens of Jefferson County."

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