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Court News Ohio

Double Jeopardy Protections Do Not Bar Prosecuting Man Who Changed Story about Son’s Death

Dismissal of a charge through a plea agreement is not the equivalent of an acquittal, and a Putnam County man who was convicted of child endangering and served five years in prison for the death of his 2-year-old son can be charged with murder, the Ohio Supreme Court ruled today.

A Court majority sided with a Putnam County trial court, which rejected Travis Soto’s argument that the double jeopardy clauses of the U.S. and Ohio constitutions bar him from being tried for the 2006 death after he confessed 10 years later to beating his son to death. Soto pleaded guilty to child endangering after telling authorities he accidentally killed his child in an all-terrain vehicle accident.

Writing for the Court, Justice R. Patrick DeWine stated that because an involuntary-manslaughter charge against Soto was dropped before a jury was selected, jeopardy never attached to the charge. Double jeopardy protections did not apply when prosecutors later sought to charge him for aggravated murder and other offenses.

Chief Justice Maureen O’Connor and Justices Sharon L. Kennedy, Judith L. French, and Patrick F. Fischer joined the opinion. Justice Melody J. Stewart concurred in judgment only.

Justice Michael P. Donnelly dissented, stating that jeopardy attaches when a court unconditionally accepts a guilty plea, which is what happened with Soto, and he cannot be charged a second time for the death of his son.

Father Retracts Story
Soto originally gave police two separate stories of how his son died, both involving an ATV accident. At the time, a Lucas County Coroner’s Office autopsy concluded the injuries to 2-year-old Julio were consistent with an ATV accident. Soto was charged with involuntary manslaughter and child endangering. In exchange for pleading guilty to child endangering, the prosecution dismissed the involuntary manslaughter charge, and Soto was sentenced to prison.

In July 2016, Soto went to the Putnam County Sheriff’s Office and confessed that he beat his son to death and fabricated the accident story. A doctor reviewed the 2006 autopsy photographs and concluded the child’s injuries were more consistent with the father’s recent story. Soto was indicted for aggravated murder, felonious assault, kidnapping, and tampering with evidence.

Right to File Charges Challenged
Soto asked the trial court to dismiss the charges, arguing that the Fifth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, and a corresponding provision of the Ohio Constitution, bar a person for being “twice put in jeopardy of life and limb.” Because manslaughter is a lesser included offense to murder and aggravated murder, he said he could not be prosecuted for those charges.

The trial court denied the motion, and Soto appealed the decision to the Third District Court of Appeals. In a 2-1 decision, the Third District reversed the decision and concluded that double jeopardy prevented the state from prosecuting Soto. Putnam County prosecutors appealed the decision to the Supreme Court, which agreed to hear the case.

Court Examined Charges
Justice DeWine explained that the double jeopardy clauses of the state and federal constitutions protect a defendant against a second prosecution for the same offense after acquittal. The Third District reasoned that the prosecution’s agreement to dismiss the involuntary manslaughter charge constituted an acquittal.

“But a dismissal is not equivalent to an acquittal. By their plain terms, the Double Jeopardy Clauses apply only when someone would be ‘twice put in jeopardy.’ Because Soto was never put in jeopardy for the dismissed 2006 involuntary-manslaughter charge, the Double Jeopardy Clauses do not bar his subsequent prosecution for murder and aggravated murder,” the opinion stated.

Citing the Court’s 1996 State v. Gustafson decision, the opinion stated that for charges to which the defendant has not pleaded guilty, jeopardy does not attach until a jury is empaneled or, in a bench trial, a judge starts taking evidence. Because Soto pleaded guilty to child endangering and the involuntary-manslaughter charge was dismissed before a jury was seated or a judge took evidence, he was not placed in jeopardy on the manslaughter charge.

The Court expressly took no view about whether Soto’s plea agreement might prevent further prosecution, and remanded the case to the trial court for further proceedings.

Further Prosecution Barred by Double Jeopardy Clauses, Dissent States
The issue is whether double jeopardy bars murder charges when the lesser included offense of involuntary manslaughter has been dismissed as a result of a negotiated plea agreement, Justice Donnelly stated.

The fact that a jury was not sworn in and evidence was not taken by a trial court are true but beside the point, he wrote in his dissenting opinion. Because the case was decided by a guilty plea, different rules apply than those cited by the Court majority, he argued.

Soto and prosecutors entered a negotiated plea agreement, the dissent stated, and the state gave up the right to prosecute Soto for involuntary manslaughter or any other type of murder charge in exchange for Soto’s guilty plea.

“In a negotiated plea agreement, the parties trade various risks and entitlements. When a defendant enters into a plea agreement with the state, both sides intend it to fully resolve the matter,” the dissenting opinion stated.

The dissent noted the state obtained a conviction without having to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that Soto committed the offenses as charged in the earlier indictment. Soto received the benefit of having the involuntary-manslaughter charge dropped. Although the bargain reached may not fully reflect a defendant’s actual responsibility for the crime, it reflects a mutually agreed resolution, the dissent stated.

“Under the majority’s conclusion, no plea bargain is necessarily conclusive and any plea agreement can be negated with new information. To accept this position is to declare that a plea agreement is not worth the paper it is journalized on,” the dissent concluded.

2018-0416. State v. Soto, Slip Opinion No. 2019-Ohio-4430.

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