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Court News Ohio
Court News Ohio

Death Sentence Upheld for Man Who Killed Ex-Girlfriend and 4-Year-Old Daughter

Image of a male prison inmate

Death row inmate Kristofer Garrett

Image of a male prison inmate

Death row inmate Kristofer Garrett

The Supreme Court of Ohio today affirmed the death sentence of a Franklin County man who killed his ex-girlfriend and 4-year-old daughter by repeatedly stabbing them.

The Supreme Court was unanimous in upholding the aggravated murder convictions of Kristofer Garrett for the January 2018 murders of Nicole Duckson and her daughter, identified in court records as “C.D.” However, the Court split 4-3 on whether Garrett should receive the death penalty.

Writing for the Court majority, Justice Patrick F. Fischer wrote that Garrett’s mental health problems and lack of a criminal record provided strong mitigating evidence, but not enough to overcome the aggravating circumstances of Garrett’s murder of his daughter.

“We conclude that the mitigating evidence collectively pales in significance to the aggravating circumstances of Garrett’s brutal murder of four-year-old C.D,” he wrote.

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

Sitting for Justice Jennifer Brunner, Sixth District Court of Appeals Judge Myron Duhart wrote a dissenting opinion, arguing the majority did not give sufficient weight to Garrett’s serious mental health issues, his lack of a prior criminal record, and a dysfunctional childhood.

Judge Duhart also noted that while Garrett’s appeal was pending before the Supreme Court, the General Assembly passed a new law that states a person who has been diagnosed with a serious mental illness is ineligible for a death sentence if the illness significantly impaired the person’s capacity to exercise rational judgment. He noted that psychologists testifying for both the prosecution and defense identified Garrett as having a serious mental illness.

Justices Michael P. Donnelly and Melody Stewart joined Judge Duhart’s opinion.

Teen Feels Tricked Into Having Child
Garrett was 19 when he met Duckson, who was 29 when they began dating. Garrett said Duckson told him she could not get pregnant. When she gave birth to C.D., Garrett said he felt tricked. Garrett told police that Duckson said she would not request child support. But she did, and he was ordered to pay $600 per month. Garrett said Duckson would withhold visitation with C.D. unless he made additional payments and met other demands. He told officers it had been several months since he had seen C.D.

Anger Over Child Support Leads to Confrontation
On the morning of the murders, Duckson’s family suspected Garrett, and police questioned him about three hours after the crime. Garrett initially denied to police that he knew anything about the deaths. Two days later, Garrett confessed, explaining that after leaving work around 6 a.m., he received an email regarding his delinquent child support and that he could face jail time for not paying.

He said he became angry, drank multiple shots of liquor, drove to Duckson’s neighborhood, and waited for her. When she left her residence, Garrett said he just started stabbing her. She yelled, “[P]lease, I’m sorry!” He said he felt she was not sorry because “they had been in this situation too many times.” C.D. ran out screaming. Police asked Garrett whether he killed the girl because she saw him stab her mom. Garrett responded, “Yes, because of that.”

Garrett was charged with three counts of aggravated murder and one count of tampering with evidence . Two of the counts related to the murder of C.D. Three of the counts carried death penalty specifications.

Defendant Pleads Not Guilty by Reason of Insanity
Garrett pleaded not guilty by reason of insanity to the murder of C.D. and not guilty to the other charges. At his trial, forensic psychologist James Reardon testified in support of Garrett’s insanity plea.

Reardon explained that Garrett was diagnosed at 13 with “reactive attachment disorder of infancy or early childhood.” He noted that Garrett’s father was in prison most of the time Garrett was growing up and that he had been removed from his mother’s care repeatedly, beginning when he was an infant.

His childhood contained periods of homelessness and few father figures, and Garrett’s lack of trust and sense of betrayal developed while dating Duckson, Reardon stated. He described the couple’s relationship as a “back and forth struggle” about being able to see C.D.

Reardon also presented a comprehensive assessment of Garrett, including diagnoses of a persistent form of reactive attachment disorder, unspecified bipolar disorder, and schizoid personality disorder.

The psychologist said while Garrett was “severely deranged” at the time he assaulted Duckson, he was probably aware that what he was doing was against the law. Reardon concluded that Garrett was sane at the time of the attack.

As for C.D., Reardon reported Garrett was in an “acute dissociative episode.” He concluded Garrett was insane at the time of the child’s murder.

The jury convicted Garrett of all counts. For the murder of C.D., he received a death sentence. For Duckson’s murder, he was sentenced to life in prison without the possibility for parole.

Death sentences are automatically appealed to the Supreme Court.

Defense Strategy ‘Torpedoed’ by Court’s Jury Instructions, Defendant Maintained
Garrett raised 16 legal arguments in the appeal of his conviction and sentence. Among the claims was that he was denied due process and a fair trial by the trial judge. Death penalty cases contain two parts – a trial phase and a sentencing phase. If the trial phase ends in a finding of guilt, the sentencing phase occurs to determine whether the aggravating circumstances outweigh the mitigating factors beyond a reasonable doubt. 

Garrett argued that during the sentencing phase his attorneys did not want the jurors to consider under R.C. 2929.04(B)(3) if Garrett suffered any “mental disease or defect” at the time of the murders.

At the beginning of the sentencing phase, Garrett’s lawyers reintroduced Reardon’s report. But the defense attorneys objected to the judge giving the specific mental disease mitigation instruction because they wanted to de-emphasize the fact in mitigation. To spare Garrett the death penalty, the lawyers intended to have the jury focus on Garrett’s dysfunctional childhood, and the testimony of family and friends who were shocked that Garrett could commit the crime.

Garrett’s attorneys asked the judge to give the jury an instruction on a “catchall provision” in R.C. 2929.04(B)(7), which states that the jury can “take anything from the trial phase and use it in your determinations.” The attorneys told the jury that because they did not consider his mental illness a serious factor during the trial, they expected the jurors would disregard that evidence during the mitigation phase.

The reintroduction of Reardon’s report led the Franklin County prosecutor to reference it during the sentencing phase and discredit Garrett’s evidence of a mental disease or defect.

The trial judge read the mental disease or defect mitigation instruction to the jury. After Garrett’s lawyer objected, the trial judge stated he thought there was too much evidence and focus on the mental illness not to give the instruction. He stated, “I just think that bell can’t be unrung.”

Garrett’s attorneys told the Supreme Court the instruction led to an emphasis on mental illness during the sentencing phase and “completely torpedoed” Garrett’s mitigation strategy.

Supreme Court Analyzed Impact of Instruction
Garrett argued that because his defense did not present evidence related to the mental illness mitigation instruction, the trial court was prohibited from giving the instruction.

Justice Fischer explained that while the defense attorneys may not have wanted to discuss Garrett’s mental illness during the mitigation phase, the trial court was not prohibited from giving the instruction. The Court reasoned that once Garrett resubmitted Reardon’s report during the mitigation phase, the issue could be considered.

Once the report was “lawfully inserted into the sentencing considerations, such information is subject to fair comment by both parties,” the Court concluded.

In addition to considering the trial court’s verdict, the Supreme Court conducts its own assessment of the mitigating and aggravating circumstances. The Court noted that the decision to murder Duckson and C.D. was “senseless, horrific, and terrible.” It ruled the death penalty was appropriate.

Mitigating Factors Justify Life Sentence, Dissent Maintained
In his dissent, Judge Duhart wrote that while the jury rejected Garrett’s insanity defense, there was “compelling mitigation testimony.” The dissent noted that Reardon reported that Garrett was almost completely unaware of the magnitude of the assaults.

The dissent stated that both Reardon and Daniel Martell, a psychologist who testified in support of the prosecution, did not dispute that Garrett suffered from a bipolar disorder. The dissent noted this would qualify as a serious mental illness under the new state law allowing those with a mental illness to prove at trial that the death sentence is unjustified.

The dissent also maintained the majority did not grant sufficient mitigating weight to Garrett’s lack of a criminal record and a dysfunctional childhood.

2019-1381. State v. Garrett, Slip Opinion No. 2022-Ohio-4218.

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