The death and secret burial of 1-year-old Garin Niehaus naturally outraged our community. No matter how the child died, the decision by his mother and her boyfriend – as described in police reports and open hearings - to bury the boy in the middle of the night in an unmarked grave in the woods was a horrible act.
After a grand jury was presented the evidence in the case, it returned indictments for murder, involuntary manslaughter, child endangerment, tampering with evidence, and abuse of a corpse.
The murder indictment was somewhat surprising, since there was scant evidence about what caused the death of the child. But the community’s outrage over the entire episode was no doubt shared by members of the grand jury, whose members literally threw the book at the defendants when it came to the laundry list of charges.
Just as natural as the outrage over this sordid case were the predictable calls for the infliction of the harshest possible punishment. The agreement last week that allowed Nathan Ritze to enter a plea of involuntary manslaughter, resulting in a seven-year prison sentence, will not be tough enough for some tastes.
Some comments on our Facebook page about this story unfortunately veered into accusations not supported by facts, and suggestions for punishment not possible under Ohio law in this case. Remember, even the gruesome slaying of Jada Beth Williams was not a case eligible for the death penalty.
The fact is, the deal with Nathan Ritze was also probably not tough enough in the mind of the prosecutor in this case, Anneka Collins. And yet, it is conceivable that the other defendant, Whitney Johnson, the baby’s mother, might end up with a similar deal.
Because some prison time is better than no prison time, and juries are fickle and unpredictable. A case in point is the recent vehicular homicide trial that resulted two weeks ago in a not guilty verdict, despite the fact that some observers felt that enough evidence was presented in court for a conviction.
Trials by jury are not the same as trials by judges. Judges, when they alone hear a case, tend to be guided strictly by evidence. Juries, made up of lay people who try their best to understand the law and the rules of evidence, nevertheless often let emotions and personal opinions of right and wrong influence their decision as much as the evidence.
That’s not necessarily an altogether bad thing. There is a reason that we are permitted, when charged with a crime, to be tried by a “jury of our peers.” The idea is that 12 men and women from our community will be able to relate to the defendant on socio-economic standards, as well as local mores of behavior, and put themselves in the defendant’s place, ultimately determining whether the actions warrant the charges that have been leveled and the punishment that would be forthcoming with a conviction.
With the vehicular homicide case, it is possible that a judge, alone, would have reached a verdict opposite of the jury’s. But members of the jury, putting themselves in the defendant’s shoes and considering human factors beyond the cold, hard evidence, made a decision that surprised and disappointed many law enforcement officials, but is not entirely surprising when you remember that juries factor into their decisions opinions and sympathies beyond the legal textbooks.
Whether you think the jury made the right or wrong decision in the vehicular homicide case probably depends on which family you belong to, or to which you are closest. Either way, it is a tragic situation with no perfect resolution.
If it went to trial, the Garin Niehaus case would offer a set of circumstances lending itself to little room for human sympathy for the defendants, if for no other reason than it involves an infant. Our society expects parents or guardians of helpless children to take care of those children, to educate them, clothe them, feed them, and seek medical care when they are sick or injured.
There are some areas of “child neglect” that might be debatable. Is it OK to leave a 12-year-old home alone for a couple of hours after school until a parent gets home from work? What about an 11-year old? Ten? Nine? These circumstances are not unusual in this day and age, and what constitutes neglect or abuse can be a gray area in some situations.
But what we can assume would be universally agreed upon in our society is that a circumstance involving a year-old infant, ill or injured enough to be on the verge of death, demands that a parent or guardian seek medical care, especially when they are residing within walking distance of a hospital, and that if that child is found in a condition that might be beyond typical first-aid means of resuscitation, someone will at least dial 9-1-1.
When none of that happens, and when instead the baby dies and is then transported secretly at night to a woods at the edge of town and buried in a shallow grave, even a typical jury of the defendants’ peers will presumably have a difficult time summoning enough sympathy to result in an acquittal.
And yet, juries remain unpredictable. A prosecutor is always leery of trusting such a case to a jury’s care. What if the jury lets them walk scot-free? Isn’t the guarantee of at least some prison time better than the risk of a flat-out acquittal?
Likewise, the defendants must ask themselves whether to roll the dice with a trial. If they’re lucky, they walk away. If they’re not, it’s 25 to life. It’s quite a gamble, and a plea deal offering the accused anything less than the maximum sentence that goes with a conviction at trial would be an extremely tempting offer.
It’s easy for those of us on the sidelines to toss out opinions about what should happen in cases like this. It’s much more difficult to sit in the prosecutor’s chair, where options are informed by experiences with juries, and the limitations of what the law actually allows based on the facts and the circumstances.
To me, in the case of Garin Niehaus, guaranteed prison time, and some level of justice, is better than the chance of acquittal and no justice at all.
Gary Abernathy can be reached at 937-393-3456 or on Twitter @abernathygary.