Criminal Law

Need for Public's Safety Means No Bail for Sowell

In November 2009, police officers in Cleveland arrived at the home of Anthony Sowell. They were there to arrest him for an alleged attack against a woman in his home on September 22.

When the police arrived they discovered the bodies of two women lying on Sowell's living room floor. The police then found the remains of 10 more bodies. They're preparing to tear down the walls of his home to search for even more.

Who Is Anthony Sowell?

Anthony Sowell, 50, is a registered sex offender who moved to the Cleveland duplex in 2005. Previously, he'd been in state prison for 15 years after pleading guilty to two counts of attempted rape. In that case, court papers state that he lured a 21-year-old woman into his home and then choked and raped her.

At the bail hearing in this newest case, Brian Murphy, the Assistant Prosecutor called Sowell "an incredibly dangerous threat to the public"1 and asked that he be held without bail.

What Is Bail?

Bail is the cash or property that an arrested person gives to the court to guarantee that he will appear in court. So long as the person appears in court, bail is refunded.

However, in some cases, bail can be denied. This process begins by filing a motion and asking the court to find the defendant too dangerous for release. The prosecutor needs to show the community is at risk if the defendant is released. At the defendant's first appearance, the judge makes a decision.

While most defendants are usually entitled to bail, courts can deny bail. The Bail Reform Act of 1984 (Act) lets courts to deny bail who presents a danger to the community. When a court doesn't allow a defendant to post bail, it's called a pretrial detention.

However, a defendant can get bail even if he's considered dangerous if the community is reasonably assured of safety. The defendant can then offer evidence challenging his designation as dangerous.

Determining if a Defendant Is Dangerous

According to the Act, some specific crimes presume that a defendant is dangerous and can be a reason to deny bail. These crimes include:

  • Violent crimes
  • Crimes where the penalty is death or life imprisonment
  • Drug offenses where the penalty is 10 years or more in prison
  • Felonies involving repeat offenders
  • Felonies, that aren't violent crimes, involving minors, weapons possession or failing to register as a sex offender

While most state laws vary, the majority of judges will deny bail to defendants charged with dangerous crimes and crimes punishable by death. Basically, the worse the crime, the more likely a defendant is considered dangerous. Also, a previous conviction increases the chances of being a danger to the community.

To hold a defendant without bail, the prosecutor or judge needs to show by clear and convincing evidence that no release conditions exist that can reasonably guarantee the safety of the community.

The judge also looks at several factors to decide if bail is justified, including:

  • The type of crime
  • Evidence against the defendant
  • The defendant's personal history and characteristics
  • Level of danger posed by the defendant's release
  • Risk of flight or leaving the area - family not in the area, a lot of money available

Keeping a dangerous defendant in custody before trial means the judge determined a community's need for safety outweighs the defendant's right to bail. The judge's order must include written fact and a written statement of the reasons for denial.

Should Bail Be Denied for Sowell?

In this situation, Kathleen DeMetz, Sowell's court-appointed defense attorney, argued that he should get released on bail because he suffers from a heart condition and needs a pacemaker.

However, citing the "macabre nature" of the killings, the judge denied bail.

Sowell so far was charged with five counts of aggravated murder in what is being called one of the Midwest's most disturbing serial killer cases. Sowell has also been charged with rape, felonious assault and kidnapping in connection with September's alleged attack. Prosecutors said they expected more charges in the coming weeks. Sowell could face the death penalty if convicted of the killings.


1 P.J. Huffstutter, No Bail in Cleveland Multiple Murder Case, Los Angeles Times, Nov. 5, 2009, available at, accessed Dec. 30, 2009.

Questions for Your Attorney

  • Under what circumstances can my bail be denied?
  • A defendant has murdered my brother. Is there anything I can do to have his bail denied?
  • How much evidence is "clear and convincing"?
Have a criminal law question?
Get answers from local attorneys.
It's free and easy.
Ask a Lawyer

Get Professional Help

Find a Criminal Law lawyer
Practice Area:
Zip Code:
How It Works
  1. Briefly tell us about your case
  2. Provide your contact information
  3. Connect with local attorneys

Talk to an attorney

How It Works

  1. Briefly tell us about your case
  2. Provide your contact information
  3. Choose attorneys to contact you