Pike County murder trial: George Wagner IV appeals, requests new trial

WAVERLY, Ohio — Just over a year and a half after a Pike County jury found him guilty and a judge sentenced him to life in prison with no possibility of parole, George Wagner IV has filed an appeal asking for a new trial.

George was convicted in November 2022 of 22 charges connected to the murders of eight members of the Rhoden and Gilley families in Pike County, Ohio in 2016.

Found dead that day in April 2016 were 40-year-old Christopher Rhoden Sr., 37-year-old Dana Rhoden, 20-year-old Hannah “Hazel” Gilley, 16-year-old Christopher Rhoden Jr., 20-year-old Clarence “Frankie” Rhoden, 37-year-old Gary Rhoden, 19-year-old Hanna May Rhoden, and 44-year-old Kenneth Rhoden.

George Wagner IV was the first of several of his family members accused in the murders to face trial.

His mother, Angela Wagner, and brother, Edward “Jake” Wagner, both accepted plea deals that stipulated the death penalty would be dropped against the family if the pair testified at any trials.

George’s father, George “Billy” Wagner III, is still awaiting trial, but has maintained a plea of not guilty.

New attorneys cite old grievances in appeal filing

The appeal was filed on June 10 by Louis Grube, an attorney with Cleveland-area law firm Flowers & Grube. Still, it cites many of the same arguments made by attorneys John Parker and Richard Nash during Wagner’s trial — and some new ones.

The appeal cites 33 different instances in which George’s trial was not a fair one, including prosecutors making “an inherently coercive deal with George’s brother, Jake Wagner, and mother, Angela Wagner, threatening to maintain pursuing the death penalty for them and their family members unless they gave testimony that the State believed to be true.”

The document argues that prosecutors sat a death penalty-certified jury, which statistically is more likely to enter a conviction, then waited until the end of George’s trial to waive the death penalty. The appeal claims Jake and Angela’s plea agreements stipulated capital punishment should have been taken off the table for George immediately, as it was for Angela and Jake, not waiting until the close of evidence.

“George was entitled to a trial without the specter of the death penalty hanging over him,” reads the document. “His brother entered into a plea deal requiring dismissal of all death specifications in the case without delay.”

Attorneys also allege there were at least three members of the jury who had personal connections to the victims.

One of those jurors was specifically highlighted in the document as having known Chris Sr. and Dana from school, and as having gone to church with Dana growing up. Another juror apparently knew Hanna May, Frankie and Chris Jr., the document said. The third juror apparently worked as a dispatcher for the ambulance company that received the initial emergency call the day the murders were discovered.

Listed in the appeal are also several complaints that were made by Parker and Nash during George’s trial:

However, some new complaints are cited that did not come up in any hearings on the record during George’s trial.

New complaints and new details

The appeal filing claims the court denied George his right to prepare a defense against the testimony of Jake’s ex-wife, Elizabeth Armer, because she was allowed to take the stand despite the prosecution having withheld her contact information from the defense.

The document also cites issue with the use of shoeprint and footwear identification, “which is unreliable and not based upon peer-reviewed studies or generally accepted scientific principles.” During the trial, there was no forensic evidence linking George to the crime scenes — except for a bloody footprint Angela testified belonged to George.

Used extensively during trial, including in opening and closing arguments, Hanna May’s Facebook message that said “I won’t sign papers ever, it won’t happen, they will have to kill me first” should not have been admitted because it was hearsay, the appeal documents claim.

The document also takes aim at how prosecutors and the judge instructed jurors on Ohio’s laws surrounding complicity; in Ohio, suspects who were present during a crime can be charged the same as those who actually performed the criminal acts. During trial, Parker and Nash repeatedly argued their client never fired a single shot during the night the eight victims were murdered.

However, the document goes a step further and claims the jury should have been given instruction on laws surrounding complicity after the fact.

“Was George entitled to have jurors instructed that Ohio law does not permit a conviction for acting as an accomplice after the fact and that renunciation and abandonment are complete defenses to conspiracy?” reads the appeal.

In addition to the appellant brief filed, George’s attorneys filed two motions: one that expanded on the appellate brief, because page limits placed on filings by the court meant not everything attorneys are claiming fit in one document and another asking all evidence — physical and exhibits — be preserved.

From here, prosecutors have an opportunity to file their own brief arguing their side within 60 days. Then, an oral argument will likely be scheduled where both the prosecution and George’s attorneys will have the opportunity to argue their sides in person before a three-judge panel.

If George’s conviction is reversed on appeal, the case will return to trial court and prosecutors will have to decide whether to begin the prosecution over again from the beginning.

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