“Justice should not depend on how fat your wallet is,” said Ohio Attorney General Dave Yost.
Yost was in Waverly late last week to hand over a $100,000 check to Pike County commissioners, what he repeatedly called a “down payment” on costs associated with prosecuting the eight Rhoden family murders from 2016.
Pike County Prosecutor Rob Junk estimated the county had spent about $600,000 from its general fund to investigate and prosecute the case through Friday. Yost estimated the final costs of moving forward with the prosecutions, which very notably and include four death penalty cases, could run into “seven figures.”
Asked for a more concrete estimate, Yost said the best he would offer was “seven figures.”
Pike County commissioners, all three of whom were on hand Thursday morning, indicated the entire Pike County annual general fund budget sits at about $10 million. Obviously, a seven-figure tab for the Rhoden case is not going to go unnoticed on the county’s balance sheet.
“We hate to even put these numbers out there,” Pike County Commissioner Blaine Beekman previously said. Nevertheless, at the time, Beekman estimated the cost of the Rhoden case might land somewhere between $2 million and $4 million.
Yost talked about his biggest nightmare during his days as a prosecutor being having to pay for a murder case.
“Tragically, the Pike County commissioners are dealing with a situation that’s unimaginable, beyond my worst nightmare,” Yost said.
But Yost added Ohio has a direct interest in seeing justice done in this case. He noted that on case paperwork all the names say the State of Ohio, not Pike County, as the party prosecuting the crimes. Nevertheless, Yost said it’s Pike County that’s having to pay for that prosecution, and he believes the state must shoulder part of that financial responsibility.
“The state ought to be picking up the out-of-pocket costs,” Yost said.
The $100,000 awarded to Pike County Friday came directly from the attorney general’s office, according to State Rep. Shane Wilkin, R-91, in comments to the Portsmouth Daily Times. He said any further money will have to be approved by the state legislature and the Ohio State Controlling Board.
Wilkin and State Sen Bob Peterson (R-Washington C.H.) were on hand Friday as they are working on legislation Wilkin said they hope solves the problem of paying for capital or death penalty cases around Ohio. Wilkin said he and Peterson met with representatives from the attorney general’s office, a county commissioners association, state prosecutors and numerous other officials to hammer out the final details of their legislation which they introduced to the public back in November.
Wilkin said the hope is to put the measure before the entire Ohio legislature within the next few weeks. In the meantime, Yost seems to feel Pike County has more financial help coming one way or another.
According to Wilkin, as currently written, the proposed legislation states that when counties face capital cases, if the cost of prosecuting such a case or cases reaches 5 percent or more of their general fund budget, those counties would be eligible to ask for financial help from the controlling board, which would have the final say as to whether an individual case qualified for extra state funding.
Wilkin said the hope is the new legislation will help small counties such as Pike or Scioto deal with such cases when or if they arise. He said he doesn’t want criminals thinking they can commit murder inside (or move a body into), for example, Scioto County, and assume they won’t face the death penalty simply because the county can’t afford the prosecution.
Wilkin said he expected the legislation would be retroactive, meaning if it is adopted, Pike County would be eligible to go to the controlling board and ask for more funds to help with the ongoing Rhoden prosecution. In November, Peterson said such funds likely would be funneled through the attorney general’s office.
Yost’s visit to the Pike County Government Center in Waverly attracted a fair number of news reporters from around the area, some of whom lobbed questions about the Rhoden case at the attorney general as well as Junk. The letter noted he is under a gag order imposed by Pike County Court of Common Pleas Judge Randy Deering, as are all officials connected with the Rhoden case.
Nevertheless, Junk said he and Pike County Sheriff Charles Reader have met regularly with members of the Rhoden family, as well as the two other families who lost members in the 2016 massacre of eight people. He said he felt the families had experienced some relief when someone was finally charged with the crimes after roughly two years of investigation. Junk added he believes the families realize the court process is just something they now need to work through to its end.
Another question probed Junk on how long he felt the prosecutions might possibly take.
“You’re probably going to have to get used to the phrase, ‘Hurry up and wait,’” Junk said.
Both he and Yost talked at least briefly about how capital cases are far more complicated than what might be called an average murder case. Yost and Junk also were asked if any of the four capital cases might be lumped together in order to save some money and expedite the proceedings.
In capital cases, Ohio law mandates each suspect to have his or her own jury. However, apparently there is some precedent for two juries hearing simultaneous but separate cases. Both Yost and Junk seem to think that unlikely in this instance.
“I don’t think this is a joinder case,” Yost said.
For now, the Rhoden case is largely in a sort of legal limbo. None of the six suspects are scheduled to be back in front of Deering for further pretrial hearings until March, at least as of Thursday, according to the docket posted online by the Pike County Common Pleas Court. Defense attorneys for all six suspects are, however, actively submitting various pretrial motions.