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Convicted killer apologizes as Steubenville jury weighs sentence

Wednesday, August 30, 2000

By Cindi Lash, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

STEUBENVILLE, Ohio -- His shoulders hunched and his voice quavering, Nathan Herring stared at the faces of his victims' mothers long enough to say he was sorry for being there when their sons were shot to death.

Nathan Herring wipes tears from his face yesterday as he is questioned during the penalty phase of his trial in Steubenville, Ohio. (V.W.H. Campbell Jr, Post-Gazette) 

In his first public statement about the slayings of Franciscan University students Aaron Land and Brian Muha, Herring yesterday took the witness stand and apologized for his role in their deaths. Under questioning from his attorney, David Doughten, he said he'd smoked marijuana, drunk beer, snorted cocaine and ingested prescription drugs before the students were killed but acknowledged he was responsible for their deaths.

Herring's unsworn testimony came during the penalty phase of his trial, in which jurors who found him guilty of aggravated murder and other charges now will recommend his punishment. Under Ohio law, he was permitted to make a statement without being sworn during this phase of the trial and he was not subject to cross-examination.

"I can only say, I know in a certain situation such as this, apologies ain't going to get it. Sorry ain't going to do it," Herring said in a low, halting voice as he stared across the courtroom at the families of Land and Muha. "But I am so terribly sorry. I would like to send my sympathies out. If I could turn back the hands of time ..." he said, before his voice broke, he dropped his head to his hands and sobbed.

Shoulders heaving, Herring wept quietly until his relatives and friends began to mutter to his attorneys to "take him down" from the witness stand. At least three jurors also could be seen wiping tears as Herring, still weeping, returned to his seat.

Herring's statement came on a day when he, a psychologist, relatives, former teachers and coaches testified about mitigating factors intended to persuade jurors to spare his life.

Karen Aulet, left, hugs a family member of Nathan Herring yesterday after Aulet, a former teacher of Herring’s, testified on his behalf in the penalty phase of his trial. Another former teacher, Marjorie Radakovich, right, also testified yesterday. (V.W.H. Campbell Jr., Post-Gazette) 

Jurors, who will begin deliberating today, can recommend that Herring be sentenced to life in prison without parole for 25 years; a life sentence without parole for 30 years, a life sentence with no parole; or death in the electric chair. They will submit their recommendation to Common Pleas Judge Joseph J. Bruzzese, who can impose or reduce their recommended sentence but cannot increase it.

The jury of nine women and three men on Friday found Herring, 20, of Steubenville, guilty of aggravated murder, as well as kidnapping, aggravated robbery, aggravated burglary, grand theft auto and receiving stolen property. Jurors did not find him guilty of being the primary offender, the gunman who pulled the trigger.

The charges stemmed from the May 31, 1999, kidnap-slayings of Land and Muha and from a carjacking of a Squirrel Hill woman later that day. A second suspect, Terrell Rhaim Yarbrough, 21, of East Liberty, will stand trial in September.

Land, 20, of Philadelphia, and Muha, 18, of Westerville, Ohio, were in Steubenville to attend summer classes at Franciscan University. Their bodies were found June 4, 1999, under a wild-rose bush off Route 22 in Robinson, Washington County.

The victims' mothers, Kathleen O'Hara and Rachel Muha, and other relatives have declined comment until the trial is over. Yesterday, they sat ashen-faced and impassive while Herring and others testified about his turbulent life before his arrest.

One by one, Herring's parents, siblings, friends, instructors, a court-appointed psychologist and Herring himself told the same story -- that of a gifted former athlete who reacted to turmoil in his life by descending into a self-destructive spiral of drug and alcohol abuse.

His parents, Monica Herring and Nathan Herring Sr., divorced when he was 2 and his mother remarried four times -- twice to men who abused her in front of her children. One husband nearly killed her by shooting her in the head with a sawed-off shotgun.

Plagued by a rare, painful form of pancreatitis, Monica Herring was often hospitalized and developed a dependency on prescription painkillers. When doctors didn't provide enough legal drugs, she turned to the streets to obtain illegal relief for chronic pain.

Her drug use and her association with a boyfriend who was arrested on drug charges resulted in her incarceration as well. Her children shuttled between her and her ex-husband, who admitted he used to smoke marijuana and, until eight years ago, was addicted to crack cocaine.

Despite his home life, Herring was a polite, well-regarded student who earned A's and B's in middle school even with a "low-average" IQ of 85. Like his older brothers Derrick and James, Herring excelled at basketball, football and track and, at age 12, won a slot in a national track meet.

While driving to Louisiana to watch Herring compete in that event, his mother and other family members stopped at a park in Mississippi to stretch their legs. His older brother, Derrick, drowned while taking a quick swim.

Blaming himself for his brother's death, Herring quit track. Two years later, he also quit the high school basketball team after badly fracturing his leg.

Abandoning his dream of one day playing professional basketball and moving his family out of their faded steel town, Herring said he began abusing drugs and alcohol to "put my mind at ease from everything I was going through."

He quit school and moved out of his father's house after refusing to obey a curfew or tough love-inspired rules. Loafing with a new circle of friends, he smoked marijuana in the mornings, drank beer all afternoon and used cocaine and prescription drugs at night.

One of those friends was Yarbrough, whom Herring said he met through another friend two years ago. Claiming to be from New York City and a friend of rap music artists Sean "Puffy" Combs and the late "Biggie" Smalls, Yarbrough's patter attracted Herring, who said he was "fascinated" with rap music.

"We'd get high together [and] the state of mind I was in and the things I was open to, it was just what I needed to hear," Herring said. "He'd tell me, out of nowhere, 'I love you, man.' I never had [anybody] who'd stress their feelings toward me and it made me feel good."

Dr. James Eisenberg, a Painesville, Ohio, forensic psychologist, said Herring was susceptible to Yarbrough's influence because he'd lost his identity and goals and was not comfortable seeking help with his drug problem from relatives who'd also abused drugs.

But prosecutor Stephen M. Stern pointed to the relatives and friends who testified on Herring's behalf as components in a "support mechanism" that could have helped to steer his life back on track. Herring could have listened when those people begged him to give up drugs and go back to school, but he didn't, Stern said.

"Aren't there many kids who lose a brother or a loved one? There are millions of kids who can't be the athlete of their dreams," Stern said. "But they don't go out and kill people with prior calculation and design."

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