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Oral Argument Previews for Wednesday, Nov. 10, 2021 – Court News Ohio

  • Attorney Daniel Albert

State of Ohio v. George C. Brinkman , Case no. 2019-1642
Fifth District Court of Appeals (Stark County)
State of Ohio/City of Bryan v. Steven M. Towns , Case no. 2020-1503
Sixth District Court of Appeals (Williams County)
Rachel Davis v. Tammie Nathaniel, et al, Case no. 2021-0170
Ninth District Court of Appeals (Summit County)
State of Ohio v. George C. Brinkman, Case No. 2019-1642
Stark County Common Pleas Court
The Ohio Supreme Court will consider the automatic appeal of George Brinkman, who was sentenced to death for the murders of a North Canton couple in June 2017. Brinkman, who knew Rogell and Roberta John for years, was housesitting for them while they were on vacation. When they returned home, Brinkman murdered them.
Man Dates Woman Whose Family Offers Him Job
Brinkman met the Johns when he began dating their daughter. The victims’ son, Jason John, testified that he and his father owned a business, and Brinkman took a job at the company in 2013 or 2014. Although Brinkman’s relationship with the daughter ended in 2015 or 2016, he remained friends with the family.
Brinkman spent some holidays with the Johns. He also housesat for them on more than one occasion. While housesitting for the couple in June 2017, he mowed the lawn, power-washed the deck and outdoor furniture, and took care of their dog. When the Johns returned home on June 11, he helped them carry their luggage into the house.
Brinkman then pulled out a gun that Rogell John owned and moved the Johns to an upstairs bedroom. Brinkman shot Rogell John three times, killing him. He beat Roberta John with the butt of the gun, shot her, and suffocated her with a pillow.
He stole $40 from Rogell John’s wallet, $100 from Roberta John’s purse, their cellphones, and the murder weapon. Jason John discovered his parents’ bodies the next day when he went to check on them.
Housesitter Charged with Murders
In November 2018, a Stark County grand jury indicted Brinkman, charging him with six offenses, including aggravated murder and aggravated burglary.
Brinkman waived his right to a jury trial in October 2019 and pled guilty to all offenses. A panel of three judges conducted Brinkman’s trial and found him guilty of the crimes. Following the presentation of mitigating evidence, the judges sentenced Brinkman to death on the two aggravated murder counts. The panel also imposed a three-year prison sentence for tampering with evidence and six years for firearm specifications.
Because Brinkman was sentenced to death, he is entitled to an automatic appeal of his case to the Ohio Supreme Court. He raises 13 legal issues challenging his sentences or requesting a new trial.
Housesitter Alleges State Misconduct, Points to Jury-Waiver Issues, Raises Diabetes
Brinkman argues that the prosecutor committed misconduct by misrepresenting the facts that he and the state agreed to for the trial. Specifically, the stipulated facts were that Brinkman stole money from the Johns after he killed them. Yet, Brinkman notes, the prosecutor said in the state’s closing argument that Brinkman planned to rob the Johns and did so before killing them. He points out that the three-judge panel adopted this version of events in its statements made during his sentencing and in its opinion. Brinkman maintains that this and other prosecutorial misconduct require the return of the case to the trial court for a new and fair mitigation hearing.
He also asserts that the three-judge panel failed to inform him that he could withdraw his guilty plea up until a certain point in the trial and that the waiver would bar him in an appeal from challenging the admission of any evidence. He further maintains that it is unconstitutional to apply his jury waiver to the mitigation part of the trial. Because his trial lawyers didn’t object to these issues, Brinkman contends that their performance was unreasonable and deficient.
He adds that he had untreated and uncontrolled diabetes for a long time and suffered chronic pain associated with the disease. He resumed taking a prescription drug in April 2015 to manage the pain and was prescribed an additional prescription drug for the pain in March 2017. Shortly before the murders, his dosage was doubled for the pain. He argues his lawyers should have made sure a medical doctor testified about the effect the diabetes and medications may have had on him at the time of the murders.
Among the other issues he raises:
State Counters Each Argument, Sees No Prejudice
The Stark County Prosecutor’s Office maintains that both the state and Brinkman can make arguments based on information that isn’t part of the stipulated facts. The office argues that prosecutors can present their theory of a case without violating a defendant’s constitutional rights, prosecutors have wide latitude in what they can say in their closing arguments, and closing arguments aren’t evidence. None of its statements amounted to misconduct, the office states.
The office also argues that Ohio law doesn’t require that a jury hear the mitigation and penalty phase of a death-penalty trial, and the Ohio Supreme Court already has overruled this claim. Nor is there a mandate that a trial court advise a defendant of a right to withdraw a jury waiver, the prosecutor contends. If Brinkman’s lawyers were deficient, none of their alleged errors changed the outcome of the trial in this case, the prosecutor maintains.
As far as mitigating factors, the prosecutor argues, the psychologist for the defense noted 15 of them for the record, but they didn’t outweigh the aggravating circumstances – killing two people and committing murder while committing aggravated robbery.
On the other issues, the prosecutor notes:
Kathleen Maloney
Docket entries, memoranda, briefs (including amicus briefs), and other information about this case may be accessed through the case docket.
Contacts
Representing George C. Brinkman from the Ohio Public Defender’s Office: Kathryn Sandford, 614.466.5394
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State of Ohio/City of Bryan v. Steven M. Towns, Case No. 2020-1503
Sixth District Court of Appeals (Williams County)
ISSUE: Must a complaint based on R.C. 102.03(B), which prohibits public officials or employees from disclosing certain confidential information, be reviewed first by the Ohio Ethics Commission before it can proceed as a criminal complaint in court?
BACKGROUND:
Steven Towns was elected sheriff of Williams County in 2012 and reelected in 2016. The sheriff’s office routinely is sent information about abused and neglected children in the county. Towns states that he had serious concerns about the performance of Williams County Children Protective Services in protecting children. He compiled a report for the county commissioners.
In 2018, Towns directed that the report – approximately 632 pages of documents about children services cases – be posted on the sheriff’s office website with redactions. The documents were posted around Oct. 19, 2018. The sheriff’s office noted on its Facebook page that the documents were available, with a link to the materials. Some of the documents revealed confidential information. They were taken off the website a few days later.
Sheriff Charged with Crimes for Disclosures
Prosecutors filed criminal charges against Towns in Bryan Municipal Court in June 2019. He was charged with unauthorized dissemination and with violating R.C. 102.03(B), which prohibits public officials or employees from disclosing certain confidential information. The offenses are misdemeanors. Towns pled not guilty.
Following a two-day trial in November 2019, the jury found Towns guilty of the unauthorized disclosure of confidential information. The court sentenced him to a suspended 180-day jail term and three years of community control, along with a $500 fine.
Towns appealed to the Sixth District Court of Appeals, making multiple claims. The appeals court upheld the trial court’s judgment. He appealed to the Ohio Supreme Court, which agreed to review one issue.
Ethics Commission First Must Review Allegations, Former Sheriff Argues
Towns contends that the city of Bryan didn’t follow the process in state law when a public official allegedly discloses confidential information. The complaint in this case first had to be presented to the Ohio Ethics Commission, he asserts. He notes that the commission has jurisdiction over executive branch public officials and employees at the state and local levels.
R.C. 102.06(A) states: “The appropriate ethics commission shall receive and may initiate complaints against persons subject to this chapter concerning conduct alleged to be in violation of this chapter or section 2921.42 or 2921.43 of the Revised Code.”
Towns argues “may initiate” means the ethics commission can look into suspected ethical violations on its own without an outside complaint, while “shall receive” makes the commission the appropriate forum for ethics complaints brought by outside individuals.
“[R.C.] Chapter 102 establishes a procedure. First the Commission, then, if needed, the proper court,” Towns’ brief states.
He maintains that the municipal court lacked jurisdiction to hear the case first and should have dismissed the case until the ethics commission reviewed the matter. Allowing prosecutors to bypass the commission’s role as the “gatekeeper” over these types of complaints violates the statute and enables the prosecutors to attack other elected officials and to have them removed from office without the commission’s mandated oversight, he argues.
Prosecutors and Commission Can Investigate These Complaints, City Asserts
The city of Bryan’s brief counters that prosecutors can launch criminal prosecutions for violations of the state’s ethics laws without “first procuring a permission slip” from the ethics commission. Instead, the relevant statutes offer a “dual track” for reviewing possible violations of state ethics laws – the commission can review a complaint and refer it to prosecutors, or a prosecutor can act independently to file charges – the brief argues.
The city maintains that under another law, R.C. 309.08, county prosecutors have a standalone power, separate from the ethics commission, to independently review and initiate criminal complaints in their county. The language of R.C. 102.06 regarding the ethics commission’s role doesn’t limit or undermine the prosecutor’s ability to prosecute complaints, suits, and controversies, the city asserts.
The commission “may initiate” ethics complaints, but nothing in the statute makes the commission’s discretion to review such complaints exclusive, the city argues. It adds that requiring Ohio’s 88 counties to first funnel every prosecution of public officials involving the ethics law through the ethics commission would be unreasonable and burdensome.
Attorney General and State Prosecutors Submit Arguments
The Ohio Attorney General’s Office and the Ohio Prosecuting Attorneys Association filed amicus curiae briefs supporting the city of Bryan and asking the Court to affirm the Sixth District’s decision.
The attorney general states that the language “shall receive” is a command to receive, not a command about exclusivity. The language doesn’t bar other entities from accepting ethics complaints, but only prohibits the commission from refusing to consider an affidavit submitted to it, the attorney general maintains.
The prosecutors’ association rejects Towns’ view that sending ethics complaints first to the commission will avoid today’s “tribal” political divisions. That position wrongly implies that the state’s court system, which includes prosecutions, is inferior to the proceedings conducted by an administrative body, such as the ethics commission, the association argues.
The Court will give the attorney general five minutes to present the office’s position during oral arguments in addition to 15 minutes for the city of Bryan. The Court has allotted 20 minutes to Towns for his arguments.
Kathleen Maloney
Docket entries, memoranda, briefs (including amicus briefs), and other information about this case may be accessed through the case docket.
Contacts
Representing Steven M. Towns: Henry Schaefer, 419.930.3030
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Rachel Davis v. Tammie Nathaniel et al, Case No. 2021-0170
Ninth District Court of Appeals (Summit County)
ISSUES:
BACKGROUND:
Rachel Davis, Tammie Nathaniel, and Lora Davis-Mullins are sisters. Davis-Mullins, who had three children, died in January 2013. Nathaniel and her husband, Jeff, adopted the three children in 2014. The Nathaniels’ brief states that the children’s father relinquished custody of the children before Davis-Mullins’ death.
According to brief from Davis, the Nathaniels cut off contact with the maternal side of the family in July 2019. As the children’s aunt, Davis sued in Summit County Domestic Relations Court. She asked for legal custody, shared parenting, and companionship in relation to the children. A magistrate held a hearing and issued an order in February 2020.
The Nathaniels objected to a part of the order that appointed a guardian ad litem for the children to observe interactions between them and Davis. The Nathaniels argued the guardian ad litem’s appointment for this purpose interfered with their fundamental liberty interest as the children’s parents.
In May 2020, Davis amended her complaint, requesting only companionship with the children. The judge overruled the Nathaniels’ objections regarding the guardian ad litem’s investigation and concluded that Davis could move forward in court with her request for companionship.
The Nathaniels appealed to the Ninth District Court of Appeals, which ruled that Davis had no right – or standing – to pursue companionship rights because the Nathaniels’ rights as the children’s parents superseded Davis’ request.
Davis appealed to the Ohio Supreme Court, which agreed to hear the case.
Aunt Maintains She Remains Maternal Relative of Children After Adoption
Davis notes that R.C. 3109.11 gives a deceased parent’s relatives rights to companionship with the deceased parent’s children, subject to court approval. The Ninth District, however, stated that adoption transforms a child’s relationships and gives the child a new identity, with the adoptive parents considered the child’s legal parents. The children’s new parents are the Nathaniels, and Davis’ companionship rights under R.C. 3109.11 were terminated when the adoption was finalized, the Ninth District concluded. Although Davis remains the children’s aunt, she couldn’t pursue companionship with the children under that law, the court stated.
Unlike an adoption by strangers, Davis counters, the children in this case still have all of their family members from the maternal side. The children weren’t given a completely new identity with the adoption because half of their biological relatives remained relatives after the adoption, Davis maintains.
She notes that, under state law, when one parent dies, the surviving parent remarries, and the stepparent adopts the living parent’s child, the adoption doesn’t restrict the rights of the grandparents or relatives of the deceased parent’s child. Even if she is viewed as the Nathaniels’ relative, rather than a relative of her deceased sister, Davis asserts that the legislature surely intended to give the family of a relative who adopts a child at least the same rights as the family of a deceased parent. If the Ninth District decision is upheld, then the Court will deprive these children of the right to have continuing contact with people who are still their relatives, Davis argues.
Adopting Couple States Aunt Has No Visitation Rights
The Nathaniels respond that Davis’ standing to seek visitation with the minor children ceased to exist in Ohio when the adoption was completed in January 2014. The Nathaniels maintain that R.C. 3109.11 doesn’t apply because there is no longer a deceased parent, given that they now are the children’s legal parents.
State law allows nonparents to ask for visitation in three situations – when one parent dies; when the biological mother is unmarried when the child is born; and when a married parent begins a court proceeding involving divorce, dissolution, separation, annulment, or child support. Because they are married and are the parents of the three children, none of these circumstances apply, the Nathaniels argue. If the domestic relations court is allowed to grant Davis nonparent visitation with the children, it would violate the fundamental rights of adoptive parents to parent their children, the Nathaniels contend.
Kathleen Maloney
Docket entries, memoranda, briefs (including amicus briefs), and other information about this case may be accessed through the case docket.
Contacts
Representing Rachel Davis: Leslie Graske, 330.253.2729
Representing Tammie and Jeff Nathaniel: Lee Grosscup, 330.896.2889
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