Cases of Wagner family accused in Ohio murders take years to prosecute, cost taxpayers thousands of dollars
WAVERLY – Justice is slow.
Answers to countless questions about the methodical murders of eight members of a Pike County family in April 2016 are years away. Much like the investigation took years, so will the prosecution.
Even without the death penalty specification adding time to the process, the investigation involved following up on about 1,100 tips, conducting 550 interviews, serving more than 200 subpoenas, search warrants, and court orders, and testing over 700 items.
The prosecution also could cost taxpayers tens of thousands of dollars since the defendants – Angela Wagner, George “Billy” Wagner III, George Wagner IV, and Edward “Jake” Wagner – all are facing the death penalty if they are convicted on aggravated murder charges. If found indigent, they’re entitled by law to have a competent defense by an attorney qualified to handle death penalty cases.
While the state public defender’s office would take on the costs for one defendant, Pike County Prosecutor Rob Junk said the other three could fall to the county. The costs would be more than an attorney and would likely include various others such as a mitigation expert, a defense investigator, and a forensic scientist all adding up to tens of thousands of dollars.
There also are prosecution costs such as travel fees for witnesses – the case took investigator to 10 different states – as well as the prosecution teams which will include special prosecutors from the Attorney Generals Office.
Attorney General and Governor-elect Mike DeWine acknowledged the cost will be a burden for the county in much the same way the investigation – described as the largest in Ohio’s history involving “tens of thousands” of man hours – has been.
“Pike County is a small county and we clearly have to do something in Ohio to make sure these counties have the ability to carry out justice. I’ll let it go at that,” DeWine said. “It’s certainly been a concern of mine before the Pike County case, but it’s been really driven home during the last two and a half years. Pike County has received some help, but it’s still been a huge burden on Pike County, and the trying of capital cases certainly is (too).”
The Wagners are accused of methodically planning the violent shooting deaths of Christopher Rhoden Sr., 40, his ex-wife Dana Manley Rhoden, 37, and their three children, Hanna May Rhoden, 19, Christopher Rhoden Jr., 16, and Clarence “Frankie” Rhoden, 20. Frankie Rhoden’s fiancée, Hannah “Hazel” Gilley, 20, was also killed, along with the elder Christopher Rhoden’s brother Kenneth Rhoden, 44, and cousin Gary Rhoden, 38.
Jake Wagner is the father of Hanna Rhoden’s eldest child and had said there was a chance he also fathered her younger child – one of three who were left unharmed amidst the carnage. While officials declined to detail a motive, DeWine alleged the Wagners were obsessed over custody and control of the children.
The next step in the case will be arraignments of the Wagner family, including Angela and Billy’s mothers who are facing charges relating to a cover-up. Junk intends to request the Wagners be held without bond as permitted by Ohio law in death penalty cases which means if granted, they could spend years behind bars before going to trial.
Pike County Judge Randy Deering will make the final ruling on that request as well as the anticipated dozens of motions that will be filed.
In a much less complicated pending death penalty case in Ross County involving Jeffrey R. Holsinger, his state public defender filed 50 motions within a month after he had been indicted by a grand jury. Among them were requests for $19,000 in defense fees – $7,500 for a psychologist; $4,500 for a mitigation expert; $3,500 for a defense investigator; and $3,500 for a forensic scientist with a specialty in DNA.
Among those first motions from the defense will likely be a request to move the trials out of Pike County due to the extensive pre-trial publicity of the case and concerns about the Wagners receiving a fair trial.
“This case has received more publicity than anything we’ve ever had,” Junk said.
In Ohio, co-defendants in death penalty cases are required to have their own trials, so it’s possible the four cases could be tried in four different counties as each trial will likely generate local media attention.
Those decisions will be up to Deering who also will be sifting through and deciding on what could be at least 200 motions combined. Once a trial date is set, that process too will be quite the undertaking with each case likely taking more than a month to complete.
In the Holsinger case, the court has set aside four weeks for the trial much of which will be devoted to working through a 200-person jury pool.
While typical jury selection involves a single round of questions looking for potential conflicts and prejudices, those in death penalty cases also have a second round focused on their views on capital punishment.
“We all have a lot of hard work ahead of us,” Junk said.
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