BY: SUSAN TEBBEN and Ohio Capital Journal
A death sentence was vacated by the Ohio Supreme Court because a trial court lacked “diligence” in reading the defendant his constitutional rights.
George Brinkman pleaded guilty in Cuyahoga County Common Pleas Court to aggravated murder, aggravated burglary, kidnapping and abuse of a corpse in the death of a woman and her two daughters. He was sentenced to death by a three-judge panel after his guilty plea.
But the Ohio Supreme Court deemed that guilt plea invalid because the trial court didn’t comply with state rules of criminal procedure.
Specifically, the supreme court said, the lower court didn’t apply a rule in which a court may refuse to accept a guilty plea if a defendant isn’t informed and understands that he is waiving the right to a jury trial, to confronting witnesses against him in court, the ability to compel witnesses on his behalf, and the state’s requirement to prove the defendant’s guilt beyond a reasonable doubt at trial.
In the November 2018 court proceedings leading to the acceptance of Brinkman’s guilty plea, the supreme court found that the judge had not advised Brinkman that he would be giving up the right to confront witnesses, despite going through other elements he would be giving up with his guilty plea.
Two days later, the trial court noticed ‘there were some omissions that were not thoroughly covered’ in the plea, and asked Brinkman if he understood his rights again, adding in the missing elements.
Because Brinkman’s waiver of rights wasn’t fully specified, the plea shouldn’t have been accepted in the first place, according to Chief Justice Maureen O’Connor in the supreme court ruling. The trial court was obligated to give Brinkman all the information needed “so that he can make a voluntary and intelligent decision whether to plead guilty.”
“Informing the defendant of his constitutional rights after he has already pleaded guilty does not support that interest,” O’Connor wrote.
The court stressed that this isn’t the first time they’ve had to negate a sentence because of a lax use of the criminal rules, but that in every decision, the error was “easily avoidable” by allowing defendants to know all of their constitutional rights.
“Here, the trial court, as well as counsel for the state and the defense, failed to adhere to the level of diligence expected in, and essential to, our criminal justice system,” the court wrote in their ruling. “…This inattention is impermissible, especially in a case such as this in which a death sentence is on the line.”
With Brinkman’s convictions and sentences vacated as part of the supreme court decision, the trial court will now have to hold new hearings in the case.
SUSAN TEBBEN is an award-winning journalist with a decade of experience covering Ohio news, including courts and crime, Appalachian social issues, government, education, diversity and culture. She has worked for The Newark Advocate, The Glasgow Daily Times, The Athens Messenger, and WOUB Public Media. She has also had work featured on National Public Radio.