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Court News Ohio
Court News Ohio

New Trial Denied for Death-Row Inmate Convicted of Couple’s Killing

A man sentenced to death for the 1996 murder of a Columbus couple is not entitled to file a motion for a new trial despite prosecutors improperly withholding evidence, the Supreme Court of Ohio ruled today.

In a 5-2 decision, the Supreme Court ruled Robert Bethel was not denied a fair trial, noting that he confessed to multiple sources that he murdered James Reynolds and Shannon Hawk. The Court rejected Bethel’s claim that had he known about two prison informant statements implicating his close acquaintances in the murders, he would not have confessed.

Writing for the Court majority, Justice Patrick F. Fischer stated that based on the evidence and Bethel’s own statements, he has not shown by clear and convincing evidence that the informants’ statements would change the outcome of his case.

Chief Justice Maureen O’Connor and Justices Sharon L. Kennedy, R. Patrick DeWine, and Jennifer Brunner joined Justice Fischer’s opinion.

In a dissenting opinion, Justice Michael P. Donnelly wrote that one of Bethel’s trial lawyers indicated he would not have urged Bethel to confess had he known about the informant statements. Without Bethel’s confession—which Bethel claimed was false—the prosecution’s case would have been significantly weakened and the trial’s outcome may have been different, Justice Donnelly wrote. He asserted that Bethel deserves a hearing to determine if he should receive a new trial.

Justice Melody Stewart joined Justice Donnelly’s opinion.

Informants Implicate Other Shooter
Reynolds and his girlfriend, Hawks, were lured to a secluded field in Columbus in 1996. Both were shot multiple times and died.

Bethel belonged to a street gang, along with Jeremy Chavis and Donald Langbein. Chavis and Langbein are cousins. Bethel and Langbein were concerned that Reynolds was going to testify in the murder trial of another gang member.

The main evidence tying Bethel to the murders came from three sources. In 2000, Langbein was facing charges for an unrelated crime when he told police and federal agents about the murder of Reynolds and Hawks. Langbein said on the night of the murders, he saw Reynolds and Hawks riding in Bethel’s car with Chavis and Bethel. Langbein said a few weeks after the murders, Bethel told Langbein he shot the couple multiple times with a 9mm handgun and Chavis used a shotgun. The details were consistent with autopsy reports of the deaths.

Sometime after the murder, Bethel’s former girlfriend testified that Bethel told her he killed the couple and Chavis was with him.

In 2003, Bethel confessed to the murders as part of a plea deal to avoid the death penalty. He admitted to luring the couple to the field and said he used a 9mm handgun and Chavis used a shotgun to kill them. Bethel’s plea deal fell through when he refused to testify against Chavis.

Bethel’s case went to trial. He testified that he did not kill the couple and that he and Chavis were at Bethel’s mother’s house at the time of the murders. Bethel was convicted of aggravated murder and sentenced to death.

Cousins Implicate Each Other
Bethel’s appeals of his conviction and sentence were unsuccessful. Beginning in 2005, he pursued postconviction relief. In 2008, he learned through a public records request that a federal agent spoke to a Franklin County jail inmate, Shannon Williams, in 2000 when Williams and Langbein were in jail together.

Williams told the agent that Langbein told him he was “involved in a homicide” with an individual now in federal prison in Kentucky. Chavis was in federal prison in Kentucky at the time. Bethel argued that Langbein’s statement to Williams amounted to a confession that Langbein, not Bethel, was with Chavis when the couple was murdered.

A trial court denied Bethel a new trial based on report that Langbein allegedly confessed to Williams.

In 2018, Bethel filed another request for a new trial, after discovering a 2001 statement by another jail inmate, Ronald Withers. Withers was in jail with Chavis at that time. Withers said Chavis told him he was with his cousin who killed the couple and that Chavis claimed to shoot one of the victims after the person died.

Bethel argued the two statements revealed the cousins committed the murder. A trial court denied the new trial request, and Bethel appealed to the Tenth District Court of Appeals, which affirmed the trial court’s decision.

Bethel appealed to the Supreme Court, which agreed to hear his case.

Statements Should Have Been Disclosed by Prosecutors
Justice Fischer explained that under the U.S. Supreme Court’s 1963 Brady v. Maryland decision, evidence the prosecutor possesses that is favorable to the defendant must be turned over, and if the defendant’s case is prejudiced by not disclosing the information, a new trial is necessary. Justice Fischer emphasized that the defendant is not required to show that he could not have discovered the suppressed evidence by exercising reasonable diligence.

Under R.C. 2953.23(A)(1)(a), Bethel had to prove “by clear and convincing evidence, no reasonable fact-finder would have found him guilty” if the information had been disclosed. In today’s decision, the Court ruled the information should have been turned over, but found that the prosecutor’s failure to disclose the information did not guarantee Bethel a right to a new trial because Bethel could not demonstrate prejudice.

Error Did Not Change Outcome
The Court concluded the error by the prosecution by not turning over the informant reports did not conclusively indicate the outcome of Bethel’s trial would have been different. The opinion noted both statements from the informants were hearsay and not likely admissible at his trial.

The Court found that in Langbein’s alleged statement to the informant, he did not confess to murdering the couple and did not say he was with Chavis. Likewise, Withers’ statement to police about what Chavis said was also hearsay and would likely be enough to impact the outcome.

Nothing in the informant statements outweighs Bethel’s confession to the state or his admission to his former girlfriend, the Court ruled. Bethel’s argument that the informants implicated the cousins is inconsistent with Bethel’s alibi that he and Chavis were at his mother’s house at the time of the murder, the Court concluded.

Statements Would Have Changed Strategy, Dissent Noted
In his dissent, Justice Donnelly maintained the majority focuses too much on Bethel’s inability to use the informant statements at trial, and do not consider the prejudice Bethel faced during the pretrial stage.

The dissent noted that one of Bethel’s trial attorneys, Ronald Janes, stated that the lawyers advised Bethel to confess in an attempt to spare him from the death penalty. However, the informant reports would have been “game changers,” Janes said, and Bethel’s attorneys would not have advised him to confess, the dissent noted.

Justice Donnelly wrote that Bethel repeatedly said he did not want to confess, and that the confession was the main evidence used to convict him.

“If the state would not have had a confession to use against Bethel at trial but for its suppression of Williams’s and Withers’s statements, then Bethel would be entitled to a new trial,” the dissent concluded.

2020-0648. State v. Bethel, Slip Opinion No. 2022-Ohio-783.

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