Recognizing the financial burden that a small county can bear when faced with a complicated criminal case, State Rep. Shane Wilkin, along with State Auditor Dave Yost and State Sen. Bob Peterson, proposed legislation on Monday to ensure financial resources will be available if a small, rural county finds itself in the situation that Pike County currently faces in the Rhoden murders case: shrinking revenue and sky-high prosecution fees.
The three officials announced in a televised press conference in Columbus that they are proposing legislation to, in Yost’s words, “make sure no small county has to choose between basic services and seeking justice in a complex criminal case.”
According to Yost, if the legislation is approved early next year, a joint application would be made by the attorney general and the state public defender to the State Controlling Board that would include a statement of necessity for funding, and a good faith budgetary estimate by the county involved as to how much it would cost to prosecute the case.
“This is really a funding source that will be reserved for only the most difficult, expensive and extraordinary cases,” he said.
The money would flow through the attorney general’s office and the public defender to the local jurisdiction.
“It’s a very unfortunate experience that Pike County is going through,” Wilkin said at the press conference. “One of the benefits we have here is all three of us have some local county government experience and we know the budgeting issues that could face us.”
Wilkin, who served for nearly 10 years as a Highland County commissioner, said that during his time on the board, he couldn’t recall a circumstance where the commissioners had to find funding for a capital case.
In Pike County’s case, the cost of the trial and compensation to the jury could increase quickly “and in a county the size of Pike, we could be looking at 10 to 20 percent of their overall budget for this one specific court case,” he said.
As previously reported, four family members were arrested on Nov. 13 and charged with planning and carrying out the murders of eight members of the Rhoden family on April 22, 2016. All four suspects have capital cases filed against them. Each is charged with eight counts of aggravated murder, one for each victim, as well as tampering with evidence, officials said.
Peterson echoed the concerns of his colleagues, stating at the press conference that he hopes no other county in Ohio has to deal with multiple murders, but if faced with that prospect, the proposed legislation would provide a pathway forward to ease that financial burden.
“A lot of the counties in our district in southern Ohio are seeing falling revenue,” Wilkin said. “I spoke with Pike County Commissioner Tony Montgomery this morning and their auditor gave them a budget of $9.7 million for 2019, so if you’re at a couple of million bucks to prosecute something like this, that’s going to be devastating to a county of that size.”
Pike County’s 2019 budget figure is $1 million less than last year, he added. Meanwhile, Wilkin said the county has spent $600,000 in the Rhoden investigation alone.
For comparison, as previously reported, Highland County Auditor Bill Fawley in recent weeks gave commissioners a budget of $10.15 million for 2019, down from 2018’s budget of $10.3 million.
Wilkin said he hopes the legislation never has to be used.
“But,” he said, “we’re in a very unfortunate circumstance right now where, in a small county, a case like this can bring your court system to a screeching, grinding halt.”
Reach Tim Colliver at 937-402-2571