Ohio’s next AG proposes help to cover Pike County murder costs

Taxpayer expenses in the anticipated Pike County eight-victim murder prosecution could exceed $1 million, Ohio’s next attorney general said Monday, noting each of the four Wagner family members charged with capital murder in the 2016 Rhoden family massacre could be individually assigned a team of public defenders.

The expenses could spell financial disaster for the rural county, a pair of state legislators said. To ease the burden, they propose inventing a narrowly designed process for the state government to pay 100 percent of the prosecution, defense and automatic appeal costs in capital cases involving multiple victims and defendants.

“It’s been known for some time that a multiple-defendant, or a multiple-victim capital crime can create an undue financial burden on a local county, particularly a smaller county, particular counties that don’t have a strong revenue stream to begin with,” said Ohio Auditor Dave Yost, the attorney general-elect. “Justice should not be a matter of affordability.”

Yost said costs in the Pike County case could include the possibility of sequestering four separate juries for several weeks each and the possibility that a change of venue could be sought in the case.

INVESTIGATION: Pike County deaths and multiple arrests tied to one key factor — child custody

The proposal from state Sen. Bob Peterson, R-Washington Court House, and state Rep. Shane Wilkin, R-Lynchburg, would likely move through the legislature next year, Peterson said. The bill has not been drafted.

As envisioned, the bill would allow the state attorney general and state public defender to submit a joint application to the state controlling board seeking an appropriation of funds. If approved by the board, the money would be paid to county prosecutors and public defenders out of the state’s unappropriated general fund balance.

The bill will be narrowly designed to satisfy the problems in the Pike County case, but could also apply to other “extraordinary cases” involving either multiple victims, or multiple capital defendants, or both.

If passed by both General Assembly chambers next year, the bill would hit the desk of Mike DeWine, the governor-elect and incumbent state attorney general who has played a major role in the investigation and prosecution of the Pike County case.

DeWine’s office did not respond to a request for comment about the bill, but DeWine acknowledged at a press conference last week that smaller municipalities often have difficulty funding capital cases. Still, he stopped short of endorsing any specific action to authorize the state ease the county’s financial burden.

Already, the investigation in Pike County, frequently referred to by DeWine as Ohio’s largest-ever, has “created substantial costs for the county,” including more than $600,000 in expenses to the county sheriff’s office, Peterson said. If left unaided during the trial or trials, the county could see the case consume a “devastating” 10-20 percent of its budget, Wilkin said.

Last week, Pike County Prosecutor Rob Junk told the Dayton Daily News that part of the financial burden has already been handled by DeWine’s office.

Junk remains the prosecuting attorney on the Pike County case, though DeWine’s office has tasked three of its own prosecutors on the case to help, including Deputy Attorney General Stephen Schumaker, the former longtime Clark County prosecutor.

“We have plenty of assistance as far as the prosecution of it from Mike DeWine’s office,” Junk said. “Some of them have been with the case from the absolute beginning, embedded with it. So we’ve been given plenty of help so far, and we know we’ll be given plenty of help throughout the case.”

INVESTIGATION: Ohio execution costs rising

Last week, a grand jury indicted four members of the Wagner family — George "Billy" Wagner III, Angela Wagner, Edward "Jake" Wagner, and George Wagner IV — on eight murder counts each. Each murder count carries death penalty specifications.

The eight murder charges are representative of the eight people killed April 22, 2016: Chris Rhoden Sr., Dana Manley Rhoden, Hanna Rhoden, Chris Rhoden Jr., Clarence “Frankie” Rhoden, Kenneth Rhoden, Gary Rhoden, and Hannah “Hazel” Gilley.

The costs will no doubt increase as prosecution moves forward. Even if just one of the Wagners were convicted and sentenced to the death penalty, that alone would likely cost the state government millions each year.

A 2014 Dayton Daily News investigation found virtually everything connected to the death penalty carries a high price tag.

Ohio’s death penalty costs close to $17 million annually, though that sum is actually just a fraction of the true cost. County prosecutors, the courts and the state prison system do not specifically track expenses associated with death penalty cases in Ohio, which would add millions in expenses.

Studies in other states found that the cost of executing a killer far exceeds what the price tag for locking the offender up for the rest of his or her natural life. Death Row inmates cost more to house, since they are in single cells and guarded with more staff.

Staff Writers Josh Sweigart and Laura A. Bischoff contributed reporting. Contact this reporter at 937-259-2086 or email Will.Garbe@coxinc.com.

Read more coverage:

» Focus on Wagner family turns into arrests for Pike County murders

» How big was the Pike County murders investigation?

» Death penalty possible for 4 of 6 arrested in Rhoden slayings

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