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Priest Found Guilty; Cleric Gets 15 Years to Life in Toledo Nun’s Murder

Jury takes 6 hours to reach decision

May 12, 2006

A murder case unsolved for 26 years was brought to an unexpectedly quick and dramatic end yesterday after jurors convicted a 68-year-old Toledo priest, Gerald Robinson, in the brutal, ritualistic murder of a nun.

The 12 jurors in the Lucas County Common Pleas Court trial deliberated just over six hours before reaching a unanimous verdict.

Robinson, wearing his clerical collar, showed no emotion as Judge Thomas Osowik read the verdict and then polled the seven female and five male jurors individually.

Judge Osowik then asked Robinson if he wished to say anything and the priest — who did not take the witness stand and never spoke during the three-week trial — declined. The jammed courtroom was eerily silent but for an immediate gasp, followed by the stifled sobs of the priest’s sister-in-law, Barbara Robinson of Toledo.

The judge immediately imposed a sentence of 15 years to life in prison; Robinson will be eligible for parole in 10½ years. The slight, balding priest was handcuffed and escorted out of the fourth-floor courtroom by court deputies. His defense attorneys announced at a press conference afterward they intend to appeal the verdict.

After three weeks of courtroom testimony by 41 witnesses, with more than 200 items of evidence introduced, it took less than four minutes for Robinson’s verdict, sentence, and removal. The judge focused on procedure and made no remarks.

Robinson, who is retired from the Toledo diocese and barred from public ministry, was taken down an elevator to a basement tunnel leading to the Lucas County jail.

After he was booked, the priest exchanged his black clerical garb for a brown jail jumpsuit — he was not allowed to keep his rosary — and was held overnight in the jail’s second-floor medical unit.

He is under a suicide watch for the next few days as a precautionary measure, according to Jim O’Neal, corrections administrator.

Robinson will be taken within a few days to the Corrections Center of Northwest Ohio and then transferred to an as-yet undetermined facility.

After the verdict, the three assistant Lucas County prosecutors who tried the case — Dean Mandros, Larry Kiroff, and Chris Anderson — walked through the courtroom’s wooden doors and were greeted with a burst of applause from a small group of observers who were standing in the hallway.

Mr. Mandros immediately shook his head no, signaling them to stop.

“I don’t see it as a reason to celebrate,” Mr. Mandros said. “We’re dealing with a homicide case. We’re trying to hold the person responsible accountable. We didn’t go back in the office and high-five each other.”

Robinson is believed to be the first U.S. Roman Catholic priest ever tried and convicted for murder in the death of a Roman Catholic nun, and the ritualistic aspects of the slaying made the case even more unusual.

“It is unlikely that the factual situation … will ever be repeated,” Mr. Mandros said.

Sister Margaret Ann, a nurse and former administrator of two different Sisters of Mercy hospitals, was choked and stabbed 31 times on the morning of April 5, 1980 — the day before Easter and her 72nd birthday.

The nun, who lived in a convent in Mercy Hospital, slept later than her usual 5 a.m. wake-up that day because there was no 6 a.m. Mass in the chapel on Holy Saturday.

Described as a devout, “old-school” Catholic, Sister Margaret Ann ate a quick breakfast of grapefruit, cereal, and coffee before heading to the sacristy, next door to the chapel, where she planned to make preparations for the evening services.

There the nun, who was hard of hearing, was attacked from behind. The killer wrapped a piece of cloth around her neck and choked her so tightly that he broke two bones in her neck.

Barely alive, Sister Margaret Ann was placed on the cold terrazzo floor and covered with an altar cloth.

Jurors agreed it was Robinson who used his distinctive saber-shaped letter opener to stab her nine times over the heart in the shape of an upside-down cross.

He removed the altar cloth, stabbed her 22 more times, and then “anointed” Sister Margaret Ann’s forehead with her own blood.

As a final act of degradation and humiliation, Robinson pulled the nun’s dress up to her chest and her girdle and hose down over her ankles, then penetrated her with either a cross, the letter opener, or his finger, prosecutors said.

The Rev. Jeffrey Grob, a Catholic priest from Chicago and an expert on church rituals and the occult, testified that the killer had a “specialized knowledge” of church ritual and that the murder was intended to mock Sister Margaret Ann and as an affront to the church and to God.

In his closing argument Wednesday, Mr. Mandros said that although there were many ritual elements to the murder, it was “not a satanic cult killing.” Rather, he said, it was “perhaps the most common scenario there is for a homicide: A man got very angry at a woman and the woman died. The only thing different is that the man wore a white collar and the woman wore a habit.”

Mr. Mandros called it a rage killing and said that Robinson, angry at the nun and mad at the world, “had taken a lot, but he wasn’t going to take any more.”

Relatives of Sister Margaret Ann said yesterday that they felt a sense of relief with the verdict.

Lee Pahl, 53, a nephew from the nun’s hometown of Edgerton, Ohio, who attended much of the trial, smiled broadly in the courthouse and said he was glad that the long ordeal was over.

A niece, Marilyn Duvall, 54, of Nashville, Ind., said she watched the trial on CourtTV and was “holding her breath” waiting for the verdict.
“I was quite relieved, and I think they made the correct decision,” she said.

Friends and relatives of Robinson declined to comment. As she exited the courtroom, Robinson’s sister-in-law, wiping away tears, turned to Claudia Vercellotti, local co-coordinator of an advocacy group for victims of clerical abuse, and said, “I hope you rot in hell.”

In a press conference, prosecutors said they were surprised by the quick verdict.

“My keen analysis of the situation is that either we had presented a very overwhelming case, or a very underwhelming case,” Mr. Mandros said.

Defense attorneys Alan Konop, John Thebes, and Nicole Khoury looked tired and dejected when they met with the media.

“Obviously, we are extremely disappointed with the outcome,” Mr. Thebes said, tears welling in his eyes. “Today is difficult. But the jury has spoken and unfortunately that’s the way it is.”

Mr. Konop cut short questions about what the defense might have done differently.

“I’m not going to talk about second guessing, what should and what should not have been done,” he said. “What was done was done. The verdict was rendered. We respect the verdict, and there will be an appeal and we do think there are some appealable issues.”

All 12 jurors opted to skip the press conference. One, Trushay Carpenter, told WTOL-TV yesterday that most jurors initially believed Robinson was guilty and the rest were persuaded during deliberations of the evidence.

She said the prosecution’s case about the murder weapon is what convinced her that Robinson was guilty, and that she felt the defense’s case was not very strong.

Contacted by The Blade last night, juror Denise West said: “It was a very, very difficult case, and I just want to put it behind me.” She declined further comment.

Four other jurors contacted by The Blade last night declined to comment about the trial, and the others could not be reached for comment.

Bishop Leonard Blair, who placed Robinson on leave after his arrest April 23, 2004, said in a statement that it was “a sad day for the diocese of Toledo.”

Blade Staff Writers Ignazio Messina, Christina Hall, and Megan Gilbert contributed to this report.

Contact David Yonke at: [email protected] or 419-724-6154.

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