Columbus, Ohio — The Ohio Parole Board on Friday recommended against mercy for a death row inmate whose attorneys cite a history of physical and emotional abuse and untreated mental illness that led to him killing a man he picked up at a bar more than 30 years ago.
The board's 8-1 decision came in the case of Robert Van Hook, sentenced to die for strangling and stabbing David Self in Cincinnati in 1985. Van Hook fled to Florida, where he was arrested and confessed.
Despite Van Hook's tough childhood, he was shown love and support by relatives he stayed with for long periods as a child, the board said. But that positive influence doesn't outweigh the "gratuitous violence" Van Hook demonstrated, the ruling said.
The board also expressed concern about Hook's violent prison record, including a November 2017 attack on a fellow death row inmate that sent the prisoner to the hospital.
Arguments that Van Hook's background led to his violent nature "is belied by his ability to largely refrain from violent behaviour in the years leading up to the crime," the board added.
Van Hook's attorneys criticized the ruling, and in particular a finding that Van Hook's service in the Army could have been an argument in favour of mercy only if it had led to his post-traumatic stress disorder.
"American society grants veterans the recognition and gratitude they have always deserved," the attorneys said. "The Board disregarded this appreciation of the nature and magnitude of veterans' sacrifices for this country."
At the time of the killing, Van Hook was suffering from long-term effects of untreated mental, physical and sexual abuse as a child and was depressed that his life seemed to be falling apart, his attorneys have argued.
He also was "troubled by increasing questions about his own sexual identity," his federal public defenders said in a May 17 filing with the parole board.
They also said he was improperly questioned by a Cincinnati police detective after he was arrested in Florida, and should have been provided an attorney.
Van Hook's attorneys say they hope Republican Governor John Kasich, who has the final say, will consider Van Hook's troubled background and his military service. The execution is scheduled for July 18.
Previous attorneys representing Van Hook attempted a "homosexual panic" claim in his defense, or the idea that self-revulsion over sexual identity confusion contributed to a violent outburst. Van Hook's current lawyers say that was misguided and overlooked his diagnoses of borderline personality disorder and post-traumatic stress disorder from his childhood.
Seizing on that claim, prosecutors have dismissed the idea as nonsense, saying Van Hook made a practice of luring gay men to apartments to rob them.
"This is a man who had cynically manipulated homosexuals for years. He posed as a gay; he frequented bars that were gay and he preyed on vulnerable victims who were gay," the Hamilton County prosecutor's office said in a May 22 filing with the board.
Authorities say Van Hook, 56, met Self at the Subway Bar in downtown Cincinnati on February 18, 1985. After a couple of hours, they went to Self's apartment, where Van Hook strangled the 25-year-old Self to unconsciousness, stabbed him multiple times in the neck, and then cut his abdomen open and stabbed his internal organs, according to court records. Van Hook stole a leather jacket and necklaces before fleeing, records say.
While separate federal courts have ruled in favour of a retrial for Van Hook, the US Supreme Court upheld his conviction and death sentence in 2009.