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Death row inmate Brett Hartmann says he can prove his innocence, if the governor will just give him a little more time

He's 34 but looks 50. He doesn't maintain eye contact for long. Life in prison has not been easy for Brett Hartmann. But he doesn't want to die.

His hands cuffed, he sits at a small table in the visitor's room of the Ohio State Penitentiary in Youngstown, his home for the past four years. When he talks, his voice is calm, unassuming, a little high. He says that when he was first arrested for murder, he didn't take it seriously enough, because he knew he didn't do it. He put his faith in his lawyers. It wasn't until he noticed the jury foreman distractedly playing with his watch during his attorney's closing argument that he sensed danger. He never expected to be sentenced to death — a sentence scheduled to be meted out on April 7, barring a last-minute intervention by Governor Ted Strickland.

"All I'm guilty of is being a drunk," he says, shaking his head. "I'd like people to look at this case more closely. Look at the facts. Look at the truth. I know a lot of things make me look bad on the surface. But the more you start to look at it, the more the state's case falls apart. So much of the case is a complete lie. It's all a fraud."

It's a long story, though. And he doesn't have much time.

Brett Hartmann never had a chance. His father was a hotel manager, his mother worked for FEMA and neither seemed to want him. They split when Brett was five and he went to live with his mother in California for a spell. But the new man of the house didn't like Brett, and Brett didn't like him. So he was sent to the Navajo Indian Reservation near Window Rock, Arizona, to live with his aunt. Aunt Arletta taught special-ed classes on the reservation and lived in a trailer in the middle of the desert, three quarters of a mile from a paved road. The trailer's water supply was powered by a windmill. There was no TV.

Brett was the only white boy at St. Michael's Catholic Indian School. On the playground, the other kids spoke Navajo so that he couldn't understand the specifics of their taunts. Every summer for four years, he returned to his mother, only to be sent back to the isolation of the desert each fall.

At 11, Brett stole money from his aunt and passed it out at school. He disrupted class. When Aunt Arletta demanded an explanation, he said that good behavior had never gotten him what he really wanted. "When I was little, I could make the babysitters change if I was bad," he told her. "So I thought if I was bad here, you would get mad at me and send me home."

When he was 12, he was sent to live with his father's new family in New Mexico. Not long after he arrived, Brett stole enough money from his father's motel to pay for a train ticket back to California. He never made it. His father's new wife had called the cops and they picked him up before he left the state, charging him with larceny. They had him committed to the New Mexico Youth Diagnostic and Development Center for three months.

Several mental-health professionals interviewed him in juvie. "Brett is a very disturbed adolescent," his file reveals. "Brett presented several symptoms that are normally found in individuals who have been abused during their childhood. He is repressing strong feelings of anger and hostility. Brett's poor ego strengths, together with impulsivity, feelings of anger, hostility and his suspiciousness make him a high risk to himself and others." His counselors recommended that he be placed in a treatment center.

Upon his release, however, he moved back in with his mother, who had remarried again and was living on the La Jolla Indian Reservation in California. To attend school, Brett rode a bus an hour and a half each way. Soon, Brett was living on the streets of Escondido.

Occasionally Brett was arrested and returned to a home for wayward youths, but nothing clicked until he was nearly an adult. At 17, he shined up to a manager at McDowell Youth Homes, who liked to refer to Brett as "one of the four horsemen." This man, whose name he has forgotten, appears to have been the first adult to accept him, faults and all. Before he turned 18, Brett took all the culinary classes the youth center offered. And after he got his GED, the manager paid for him to attend culinary school until he landed a steady job at a steakhouse.

Brett had learned a trade, and he was never without a job after that. He followed his mother to Wisconsin and then to Akron, picking up jobs running cafeterias at nursing homes and then area bars. He got to be so good at cooking and managing that restaurants began recruiting him. And that's how Brett ended up working at the Quaker Square Hilton in Akron in 1997.

In February of that year, he met Winda Snipes. Brett liked to drink — he could down 15 beers a night — so it's fitting that they met in a bar. He was 23. She was 46. They started meeting for sex, even though they both had lovers of their own. And then she was dead.

Winda Snipes never had a chance. Whoever killed her was filled with rage; she was stabbed 138 times and her hands were cut off.

An examination of the events leading up to and directly following her violent end appear to link Brett Hartmann to the crime. Certainly, he did himself no favors.

In the early-morning hours of September 9, 1997, Snipes walked into the Bucket Shop bar in Highland Square and found Hartmann already there. He kissed her on the cheek, and they made idle chitchat. Though he knew her by sight, truth was, Hartmann couldn't remember her name at the time and doubts she knew his. Their relationship was about no-strings-attached sex, and that suited him fine. That night would be no exception. On the way back to her apartment, Hartmann stopped by another bar and bought four bottles to go.

He'd been to her place on South Highland Street before — in fact, the first time they met, Hartmann says that Snipes had locked herself out, and he used a ladder he found lying behind the apartment next door to climb up to her kitchen window. He knew that the side door of the complex was often kept ajar. That night, he followed her inside, and they began dancing.

A friend of Snipes' left the Inn Between bar around 3 a.m. that morning and passed by her apartment. He looked up and saw Hartmann closing the blinds near her bed, only to have Snipes angrily open them again. Hartmann maintains she wanted to keep the blinds open so people could see them having sex. Eventually, though, she let him close the blinds again.

They argued. According to Hartmann, he wanted anal sex, and she refused. After he finished, she kicked him out, saying that her boyfriend was coming over. Jeffrey Nicholas lived in the apartment across the hall.

Hartmann says he stumbled home — it was a short walk to his mother's place on Charlotte Street — and passed out in bed. He didn't have to work the next day, so he slept in. His girlfriend called and woke him up at 3:12 p.m. and called again at 4:50, according to phone records.

Snipes was last seen alive at 4:30 p.m., when an acquaintance saw her cross the street.

Both Hartmann and his mother, who was home that afternoon, claim that he didn't get out of bed until 6:15 p.m. and didn't leave until around 7:30, when he headed for the bar. He was supposed to meet his girlfriend later that night. And that's when things took a bizarre turn.

Hartmann says he got to thinking that he might have better sexual endurance with his girlfriend that evening if he had sex with Snipes first. So he slipped in the side door of her apartment and walked upstairs to her room. The door was unlocked, he says. Stepping into the room, he saw a leg draped over the bed by the window. Her mutilated body lay on the floor. Her throat had been slashed open. Her bedside clock had been ripped out, the cord used to strangle her.

Hartmann's first reaction, he claims, was to nudge the body with his foot; he thought it might be a joke. When he realized it was real, Hartmann says he tried to see if she was alive. He lifted her body, which was difficult because one leg was tied to the bed with a pair of pantyhose. It was then he noticed that Snipes had no hands.

Hartmann then realized that he was covered in her blood and would be a prime suspect in this murder. He'd had sex with her the night before — they might even find his semen still inside her. His fingerprints were all over the room. He spent the next several minutes washing the blood off his hands and wiping down surfaces that he remembered touching. He returned home, changed, then walked to Inn Between to get drunk.

At 9:59 p.m., Brett used a pay phone to call in an anonymous tip to the police. He then hid behind a tree and watched the police secure the crime scene. Around 3 a.m., Brett approached a mobile crime lab that had arrived at the apartment and told a detective, "She was a whore, a big whore, she got what she deserved."

Because of his strange behavior, Hartmann quickly became a person of interest in Snipes' murder. Police asked to search his house and he agreed. Under his bed, they discovered the bloody shirt. On his dresser, they found a knife and Snipes' wristwatch.

Detectives interviewed Hartmann's coworkers. One recalled that Hartmann had once commented that O.J. Simpson should have cut off his victims' hands so that police would not find evidence under their fingernails.

Hartmann was arrested and charged with Snipes' murder. Summit County Prosecutor Judy Bandy also charged him with kidnapping for tying her up, making the crime a capital murder.

At trial, prosecutors enlisted the help of a forensic expert named Rod Englert to examine blood spatter and other evidence. Englert told the jury that he had found an impression of a knife on Brett's shirt. He also stated that Snipes' hands had been removed by someone experienced with cutting flesh — a doctor or maybe a cook. Also, a giant "X" had been carved into her body. Could it stand for "Xavier," Hartmann's middle name?

An inmate who shared a cell with Hartmann testified that Hartmann had actually confessed to the murder in a private conversation.

On May 22, 1998, Hartmann was sentenced to death for the murder of Winda Snipes. "You are beyond lecturing and I'm not going to waste my breath lecturing," said Judge Michael Callahan. "I intend to do everything in my power to make sure you never draw another free breath as long as you live. May God have mercy on your soul."

The defense never had a chance. Not against an assistant prosecutor as notorious as the late Judy Bandy. She was once as revered for her zealousness in Summit County courts as Bill Mason is in Cuyahoga, tough on crime, racking up convictions. But, like Mason, she was a glutton for indictments, over-charging criminals in weak cases to push plea deals, and a fierce opponent of open discovery.

In 1999, both Bandy and Judge Callahan, who had since become Summit County prosecutor, were embroiled in a very public scandal after several local escorts were charged with prostitution. Bandy was the prosecutor assigned to the cases. In all, 67 people had been indicted on more than 1,000 charges, and Bandy was out to win at all costs. She refused to provide open discovery to defense attorneys and when they complained, she threatened to investigate them, according to reports in the Akron Beacon Journal. She allowed false information to be placed in a police report. And she withheld some important information some of the alleged prostitutes had shared about Callahan. One prostitute, Melissa Sue Sublett, told an investigator that she had done cocaine with Callahan and had performed oral sex on him for money inside his courthouse chambers. Five days later, she was found stabbed to death. A woman pleaded guilty to murdering Sublett before the connection to Callahan was revealed and got a three-year sentence. Later, she recanted her confession. Callahan denied the allegations.

Hartmann and his lawyers allege that Bandy and Callahan did their best to manipulate the jury and to hide evidence in his trial that might have exonerated him.

Bandy's forensics "expert," Rod Englert, had no formal science education. His résumé appears to have been misrepresented or outright falsified. In a New York trial, Englert altered the laws of physics to better fit the prosecution's case when he told the jury that blood spatter never falls straight down, but always at a 45-degree angle. Real experts, like Herbert MacDonnell, have called him a "liar for hire." Bloodstain expert Barton Epstein re-examined Hartmann's case and concluded that Englert's claim of a knife impression on Hartmann's bloody shirt "is an overstatement at minimum and outright wrong at worst."

The jailhouse snitch who claimed that Hartmann had confessed to him had a lawyer with a conscience named Tom Adgate. Before his client testified, Adgate demanded a meeting with Judge Callahan. According to an inside source, Adgate told Callahan than his client was about to commit perjury. Still, Callahan allowed his testimony.

Detectives didn't bother to determine where Jeffrey Nicholas, Snipes' boyfriend, was when she was murdered. Nicholas had been the handyman at the apartment complex and had access to keys to every room in the building. Initially, however, detectives assumed that the murder had taken place after 9 p.m., so when Nicholas gave them an alibi for that evening — he was at a friend's house — they wrote him off. But when the medical examiner determined that the time of death was a few hours earlier, they never returned to Nicholas to find out where he was at that time, despite the fact that Snipes' neighbor had told police that he'd seen the couple arguing shortly before her murder. "He started ranting and raving, yelling about cutting the bitch's fucking throat," said the neighbor.

The prosecution also ignored Snipes' clock, which had stopped at 4:45, possibly when her killer ripped its cord out to strangle her. Hartmann was at home at that time, on the phone with his girlfriend. Though documents show that fingerprints were lifted from the clock, there is no evidence that those prints were ever identified.

The watch on the dresser? It was a common brand, never proven to have belonged to Snipes. The knife beside it was not the one that killed her.

At the time, Bandy hadn't bothered to send the semen found in Snipes' vagina and anus for testing. Same with hairs found in her blood. She should have at least tested the semen — during his appeals process, Hartmann successfully pushed the state to test the semen, only to have it match his DNA profile, which suggests he was either lying about not having anal sex with her or that he was too wasted to remember. The hairs still have not been tested.

If hartmann is put to death by lethal injection on April 7, he says his last meal will be T-bone steak, fried chicken, a cheese omelet, cheesecake, M&Ms and cream soda. Until then, he plans to keep his mind off the approaching deadline by continuing to paint oil-on-canvas murals, some of which can be found for sale at enddeathpenaltyforbretthartmann.com He'll hang out with the friends he's made on death row: Ronald Phillips, convicted in 1993 of the rape and murder of a 3-year-old girl, and James Trimble, who murdered his girlfriend, her son and a Kent State student in a 2005 killing spree. He might even play Scrabble with Clarence Fry, convicted in the death of his girlfriend in 2006.

Hartmann's sister Diane has made arrangements to fly in for the execution and pick up the death certificate. She's only had one chance to visit him over the years, but has kept in touch with him by constant letters. "I believe he's innocent," she says. "Common sense would tell you a killer isn't going to call the body in to 911. He figures he wouldn't be the first innocent man executed by the state of Ohio. And he won't be the last. I hope the governor will look and see that there is still evidence that has not been tested."

"Honestly, I don't know if Brett is innocent," says his attorney, Michael Benza. "But there are a lot of things in this case that don't make sense. We have material that can be tested. We should test it before Brett is executed. It does him no good if those hairs come back as Nicholas' after he's dead. The only thing it costs us is time. You're still going to get your execution if the hairs come back as Brett's. It'll just be a couple months down the road."

jrenner@clevescene.com

Brett Hartmann's fate is in the hands of Governor Ted Strickland who has yet to make a decision on whether or not he will commute his sentence. To contact the governor about Hartmann's clemency, e-mail jose.torres@governor.ohio.gov, call 614.466.3555 or mail letters to Governor's Office, Riffe Center, 30th Floor, 77 S. High St., Columbus, OH 43215-6108.

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