Ohio Man Convicted of Murder in 2018 Granted New Trial

Mahoning County Court of Common Pleas

Appellant James Jarrell was convicted of murder, tampering with evidence, and receiving stolen property in connection with the killing of his stepmother. T.J. Jarrell appealed his conviction, arguing that the trial court erred when excluding evidence of a psychological report explaining his diagnosis of post-traumatic stress-disorder (PTSD) resulting from sexual abuse during his childhood. The Court of Appeals of Ohio reversed Jarrell’s conviction, granting him a new trial.

In September 2015, James Jarrell was charged with aggravated murder, murder, aggravated robbery, tampering with evidence, and receiving stolen property. Jarrell admitted to killing his stepmother, T.J., after an altercation between the two of them ensued. Jarrell alleged that T.J. had been sexually abusive to him for years, beginning when the defendant was only eight years old. When Jarrell was about 15 years old, T.J. married Jarrell’s father. Jarrell alleged that the two regularly used drugs together, that T.J. and Jarrell began having sexual intercourse with each other after T.J. married his father, and that T.J. would force Jarrell to have sexual intercourse with their drug dealer. This continued after Jarrell moved out of his father and T.J.’s house.

On the day of the murder, when Jarrell was about 32 years old, T.J. invited him to her house where the two discussed their relationship. During their conversation, Jarrell declined T.J.’s offer to move to Florida with her so they could be together. T.J. then began physically and verbally abusing the defendant, to which he responded ultimately by stabbing her to death.

At trial, the defendant sought to admit a psychological report from Dr. Sandra McPherson who had diagnosed Jarrell with PTSD as a result of sexual abuse from childhood involving T.J. and a separate abuser. Dr. McPherson also described a substantial head injury the defendant experienced as a child. Jarrell argued the evidence would have shown that his history of sexual abuse triggered his “sudden passion and fit of rage” and would have supported his allegations of sexual abuse against T.J.

Dr. McPherson diagnosed the defendant with “major depressive disorder, PTSD as a result of multiple sexual abuse experiences, and substance abuse and dependence.” The report also explained that Jarrell’s “coping mechanism involves a high level of emotional reactivity due to the extent of his trauma.” The State filed a motion to exclude the report and testimony relating to Dr. McPherson’s findings. The trial court granted the motion, stating the evidence would have gone to support the defense of diminished capacity, a defense unavailable in Ohio. The court did, however, give a jury instruction regarding the option to find the defendant guilty of voluntary manslaughter. In 2018 he was convicted of murder, tampering with evidence, and receiving stolen property.

On appeal, the defendant argued the psychological evidence was erroneously excluded, thus prejudicing the outcome of his trial. The Court of Appeals relied primarily on its 1998 decision in State v. Nemeth in concluding that the exclusion of testimony relating to PTSD and Battered Child Syndrome was a prejudicial error.

The appellate court first noted that although Dr. McPherson did not diagnose the defendant with battered child syndrome, the Nemeth decision explained that “battered child syndrome” is a form of PTSD, and the “psychological effects and behavioral symptoms have long been recognized by the medical and legal professions regardless of which term is used.” Furthermore, Dr. McPherson’s report and testimony would have supported the defendant’s contention that he reacted to T.J.’s conduct with sudden passion, linking the defendant’s experience of years of sexual abuse to the words and actions of T.J. immediately preceding her death. The court emphasized the necessity this psychological evidence to establish the effect T.J.’s conduct had in triggering the defendant’s PTSD.

After finding the psychological evidence from Dr. McPherson to satisfy Ohio Rule of Evidence 702, the Court of Appeals concluded the exclusion of such evidence prejudiced the defendant and thus he was entitled to a new trial. The court pointed out that the jury was reluctant to convict the defendant on aggravated murder or aggravated robbery, thus the proffered psychological evidence likely would have affected their decision as to whether Jarrell was instead guilty of voluntary manslaughter. The court also remanded with instructions that evidence in the report of sexual abuse the defendant experienced from another person rather than T.J. was to be redacted as irrelevant, as well as information detailing the defendant’s head injury, as Jarrell did not explain how the head injury would have been pertinent to his case.

Keywords: admissibility, expert testimony, head injury, manslaughter, mental health, mental illness, Ohio, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), sexual violence

Citations: State v. Jarrell, 2021-Ohio-2333 (2021); State v. Nemeth, 694 N.E.2d 1332 (Ohio 1998).

This post is the 127th post as part of an ongoing Center for Law, Brain & Behavior (CLBB) series tracking the latest developments in law and neuroscience cases. To see previous posts about recent cases, see the full case archive on the CLBB website. To see updates on legal scholarship, see the Neurolaw News, hosted by the MacArthur Foundation Research Network on Law and Neuroscience. This project is made possible through support of the Dana Foundation.

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