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A bill in the Ohio legislature would allow counties to ask for state financial support for large capital murder cases.
Legislation being considered by the Ohio legislature would give counties a way to seek financial support from the state for complicated and expensive murder trials, prompted by a rural county’s struggle to foot the bill for the state’s largest-ever homicide investigation.
George Wagner, his wife Angela and their sons George and Edward “Jake” Wagner are charged with aggravated murder in the execution-style killings of eight members of the Rhoden family in 2016 in Pike County, a rural county with a population of about 28,000. All four defendants have pleaded not guilty and are represented by court-appointed attorneys.
The upcoming trials, including expenses associated with an extensive investigation—which to date has included more than a thousand tips and hundreds of interviews, search warrants, subpoenas and court orders—are expected to cost roughly $4 million, or 40 percent of the county’s general fund, said state Rep. Shane Wilkin, a Republican from southwestern Ohio and the legislation’s lead sponsor.
“It’s simply not possible,” he said. “You’re in a case where you’re talking about a high cost of prosecution with experts and witnesses, but also a high cost of defense. It’s a case where you’re talking about taking someone’s life. The defense has to be there as well as the proper prosecution, and there was no process within the state to move forward to support a case of this magnitude.”
The bill would establish that process, allowing counties to request financial help for cases with multiple victims or defendants where prosecutors are seeking the death penalty. Counties could ask for help when the cases are projected to cost more than 5 percent of a county’s budget for the year in which they’re prosecuted. Those requests would require approval from the state’s Controlling Board. The legislation would also immediately appropriate $4 million for Pike County, which would help defray the nearly $600,000 the county has already spent on the investigation, according to Commissioner Tony Montgomery.
“Our circumstances have unfortunately demonstrated that Ohio lacks the ability to provide adequate financial assistance for prosecution or indigent defense in capital cases like ours,” he wrote in support of the legislation. “We can assure you that if HB 85 is passed we will seek to be good stewards of any funds sent to Pike County for these trials and demonstrate that we are worthy recipients of your foresight, trust and support.”
The bill is also supported by the state attorney general, the state public defender, the Ohio Prosecuting Attorneys Association and the County Commissioners Association of Ohio. Gov. Mike DeWine, previously the state’s attorney general, has not endorsed the bill but indicated in November that he might support a legislative effort to address the problem.
“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,” he told WKYC. “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.”
The bill passed the House 93-2 earlier this month and is currently awaiting a hearing before the Senate Finance Committee. Wilkin, a freshman legislator, thinks it has a good chance of passing the chamber, though he’s hopeful it will become a little-used law.
“I would like to think it would. Everyone I’ve talked to understands that this is a problem,” he said. “It’s the first bill I’ve ever introduced, and I hope it never has to be used.”
Kate Elizabeth Queram is a Staff Correspondent for Route Fifty and is based in Washington, D.C.