“We hate to even put these numbers out there,” Pike County Commissioner Blaine Beekman recently told the Daily Times.
Beekman was referring to a $2 million to $4 million estimated price tag for prosecuting the six suspects in the Rhoden murder case. Notably, there are four death penalty cases involved in the prosecution.
Ohio Attorney General and Governor-elect Mike DeWine already had promised Pike County some financial help in dealing with the prosecutions. On Monday, at a press conference held in the Columbus State House and later made available online by the state, DeWine’s successor as Attorney General and current state auditor Dave Yost was joined by newly elected State Rep. Shane Wilkin, R-91, and State Sen. Rob Peterson, R-17, both of Pike County, to unveil a legislative proposal to fund complicated, expensive criminal trials now and in the future.
Yost stated in instances of crimes involving multiple victims and/or multiple defendants, the plan is to have the state pick up 100 percent of the cost of prosecuting such complicated, extraordinary cases. In the instance of the Pike County murders as well as other potential cases, Yost talked about factors such as putting together multiple defense teams, sequestering juries and possibly orchestrating changes in venue all as factors potentially adding to the cost of prosecutions.
“Justice should not be a matter of affordability,” Yost said, adding the state has an obligation to ensure justice for both victims and defendants. He emphasized the solution proposed by Wilkin and Peterson is designed to help not just Pike County through its current situation but to be a permanent solution to what DeWine has described as a statewide problem.
Essentially, in instances of complicated capital crimes, the state Attorney General’s office as well as the state public defender’s office would get together and draft a funding request explaining why the case in question is extraordinary and deserving of state funding. The two sides would have to agree on a reasonable cost estimate. The request would go to a panel called the Ohio Controlling Board, which would have the final say as to whether to fund the case or not. Dollars would come from the state general fund and be funneled through the Attorney General’s office and the public defender’s office to the county involved.
In comments made later during a phone conversation with the Daily Times, Peterson said a lot of media questions after the press conference dealt with possible abuses of the proposal. However, he expressed confidence the legislation would contain enough safeguards. He noted not only the Attorney General and the public defender’s offices as well as the controlling board but local Common Pleas courts all would have oversight.
“This is a very unfortunate circumstance Pike County is going through,” Wilkin said during the press conference. He, Peterson and Yost all expressed hope the new funding mechanism, if it is approved, will not be needed very often, repeatedly noting Pike County is in the midst of highly unusual circumstances.
“We hope it’s a piece of legislation that will not get used for a very long time,” Peterson said.
Wilkin talked about death penalty cases sucking up 10- to 20-percent of the budget of a smaller county with limited revenue. During the press conference, Peterson talked about how the Pike County Sheriff’s office already has spent its 2018 budget with a few months still left in the year. Beekman previously had put the cost of investigating the Rhoden murders at roughly $600,000.
Peterson told the Daily Times he would love to have legislation drafted and to the rest of the legislature this year. But he also noted there are not many legislative days left on the calendar. Realistically he said legislation probably will appear early next year.
The entire press conference is available on ohiochanel.org.