Marvin Lee Smith, a convicted felon formerly from the Short North, stood up and admitted he raped and murdered the 15-year-old Westland High School cheerleader in 1991.
Today, in a deal that spared his life and prevented a death-penalty trial that was supposed to begin March 9, Smith pleaded guilty to a charge of aggravated murder, with specifications of rape and kidnapping. Three judges sentenced him to 30 years to life in prison.
Keen was struggling in school and at home back in 1991, so she was staying at Huckleberry House, a safe house and crisis center in Columbus for runaway and troubled teens. Smith snatched her from a Weinland Park bus stop about 6 p.m. March 15.
Her body, wearing only a torn and twisted bra and one dirty sock, was found two days later at Foster Chapel Cemetery in Madison County.
Prosecutors and defense attorneys recounted yesterday what Smith did:
They say that once Smith got Keen near the cemetery that Friday night after dark, she escaped. A trail of footprints in the mud, pieces of duct tape and her other sock marked her trail as she ran for her life.
Eventually, Keen ran into a fence post and fell down.
Then, Smith jerked a 70-pound tombstone out of the ground at an old grave and beat her with it until it split into two. Investigators found its two pieces, both stained with blood, thrown over the cemetery fence.
Jessica's mother, Rebecca Smitley, left the courtroom yesterday as Sheriff Jim Sabin described the scene at the cemetery.
Later, Smitley said she never gave up hope this day would come.
"I can still feel Jessica's heart beating as she ran for her life that day," Smitley said. "I can see her hiding behind tombstones and I can hear her praying."
She has never forgiven herself: "I wasn't there. I wasn't there to protect Jess, to kiss away her pain. I couldn't save her."
Smith had been charged with assaults against two Columbus women and was out on bond when Keen disappeared. He was never considered a suspect in her death.
He eventually was convicted for the two Columbus attacks and served nine years in prison. While he was incarcerated, the law changed and, as a felon convicted of a violent crime, he had to submit a DNA sample for a state database.
Meanwhile, Keen's case grew cold.
Then last year, state crime lab technicians used new technology and found that Smith's DNA matched evidence from Keen's rape and murder.
Agent Gregg Costas of the Ohio Bureau of Criminal Identification and Investigation and Sabin found Smith living in Burlington, N.C. They went and got him to give up a new DNA sample just to be sure. Smith was indicted last May and extradited to Ohio to face charges.
In court today, Smith said nothing on his own behalf. He dropped his shoulders and sobbed as Keen's family addressed him. But he never looked at them.
Heather Tallet, Keen's older sister by four years, reminded him that he stole so much more than a young girl's life.
"Everything in my life is measured against her loss," Tallet said. "Time is marked before and after her death. I miss her so."