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Defense seeks to spare Ohio killer's life

CLEVELAND -- Defense attorneys are trying to spare the life of an ex-Marine convicted of killing 11 women by painting him as someone who suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder and other mental illnesses.

The sentencing phase of trial begins today for Anthony Sowell, a sex offender who was found guilty July 22 of murdering the women and abusing their corpses, which were hidden in his home and buried in his backyard.

The jury, which sat through weeks of testimony, saw photographs of the victims' blackened, skeletal corpses lying on autopsy tables and listened to police describe how their bodies had been left to rot in a home that smelled so bad neighbors complained, believing the source of the stench was rotting meat from a nearby sausage shop.

Now the defense wants to convince jurors that Sowell, who exhibited little emotion during the trial, was mentally ill and doesn't deserve to die. If the jurors don't decide on the death penalty, Sowell faces life in prison without the possibility of parole.

Psychologist and retired police captain Mary Myers, who teaches a University of Akron course on profiling serial killers, said she doesn't see how the jurors "will buy that he truly has an impulse control problem that allows him to snap."

"I think they are going to see that he knew exactly what he was doing, just like he sat there in that courtroom and didn't show any emotion whatsoever," she said.

Sowell, 51, had pleaded not guilty to killing the women, many of whom had been missing for weeks or months before their remains were found in plastic sheets and garbage bags dumped in various parts of the house and yard.The women began disappearing in 2007, and prosecutors say Sowell lured them to his Cleveland home with the promise of alcohol or drugs. Police discovered the first two bodies and a freshly dug grave in late 2009 after officers went to investigate a woman's report that she had been raped there.

The defense has claimed in a report prepared by a mental health expert that Sowell suffers from several mental illnesses, including severe obsessive compulsive disorder with sexual obsessions, psychosis, cognitive disorder and post-traumatic stress disorder. In the report, which was provided to the prosecution July 11, the defense also cited Sowell's addiction to crack cocaine.

The fact that Sowell didn't plead not guilty by reason of insanity doesn't bar the defense from using mental illness to explain his actions, said Elizabeth Kelley, a defense attorney who isn't connected to the case. Sowell may have decided against an insanity plea to avoid the stigma of mental illness, she said.

"You could very well say, 'Look, if this guy had 11 bodies found in his house, he has bigger problems than the stigma of mental illness,' " Kelley said.

Sowell's description of "blackouts" and hearing a "voice" in a videotaped police interrogation -- which was played for the jury -- has "all of the hallmarks of someone suffering from paranoid schizophrenia," Kelley said.

Sowell told detectives during the interrogation that he heard a voice that told him not to go into a third-floor bedroom, where two bodies were found, and he described "nightmares" in which he would hurt women with his hands. He said the blackouts sometimes happened when he was being visited by a woman who reminded him of his ex-girlfriend -- and when he came out of the blackout, the woman would have disappeared.

"Reminded me of my girl, that's the best I can tell you. It was like everything's cool, she was spending the night or something," Sowell said on the video. "And I'd be like, 'Damn, where'd you go?' "

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