Court News Ohio
Court News Ohio
Court News Ohio

New Sentencing Hearing Ordered for College Student Serving Life for Death of Newborn

The Supreme Court of Ohio has ordered a new sentencing hearing for a former college student sentenced to life in prison for the murder of her newborn baby in the bathroom of her sorority house.

In 4-3 decision, the Supreme Court ruled that Emile Weaver received ineffective assistance of counsel when her lawyer failed to explain neonaticide, which is the murder of an infant within 24 hours of birth, at her sentencing hearing and how neonaticide is “not considered a premeditated act” but rather an act “within the context of extreme panic.”

The decision reversed the Fifth District Court of Appeals, which found the Muskingum County Common Pleas Court did not abuse its discretion by denying Weaver’s claim that her counsel was ineffective. Weaver filed a petition for postconviction relief, alleging that her lawyer failed to present a complete explanation of neonaticide during sentencing which could have led to a less severe punishment.

The same judge who sentenced Weaver to life in prison without the possibility of parole denied her petition. The trial judge discredited an expert witness who tried to explain Weaver’s condition.

Writing for the Court majority, Chief Justice Maureen O’Connor stated that the trial judge demonstrated an arbitrary and unreasonable attitude toward the evidence of neonaticide and pregnancy-negation syndrome.

“Not only did the trial court misunderstand the evidence pertaining to neonaticide and pregnancy-negation syndrome, but it demonstrated a willful refusal to consider such evidence,” Chief Justice O’Connor wrote.

The Court remanded the case to the trial court with instructions that another trial judge conduct the sentencing.

Justices Michael P. Donnelly, Melody Stewart, and Jennifer Brunner joined the chief justice’s opinion.

In a dissenting opinion, Justice R. Patrick DeWine wrote that Weaver’s lawyer was not ineffective for failing to explain why she would commit neonaticide. He noted that Weaver’s defense at trial was that she did not kill her baby, but rather that the baby died of natural causes. Expecting the defense to explain how Weaver suffered from pregnancy negation would undermine the argument that she did not kill the baby, he concluded.

Justices Sharon L. Kennedy and Patrick F. Fischer joined Justice DeWine’s opinion.

Student Delivers Baby in Sorority Bathroom
In 2014, Weaver was a sophomore at Muskingum University when she received pregnancy test results from the university’s wellness center. Weaver did not respond to multiple messages informing her of a positive test.

Over the next several months, Weaver consistently denied that she was pregnant when asked. She said she did not show typical signs of pregnancy, such as gaining weight or experiencing morning sickness.

Without planning or medical care, Weaver delivered her baby in a bathroom of the sorority house. After giving birth in April 2015, Weaver put the infant in a trash bag and placed the bag outside by the sorority house trash cans. In the hours after the birth, those around Weaver reported nothing that indicated she had just given birth. Two of Weaver’s sorority sisters discovered the trash bag.

Weaver was indicted on one count of aggravated murder and three other counts. She pleaded not guilty to the charges. A jury found her guilty of all counts. At a sentencing hearing, Weaver’s attorney presented a short statement regarding neonaticide. The attorney did not provide any context for neonaticide or its potential impact on mitigating Weaver’s sentence.

The trial judge sentenced Weaver to life in prison without the possibility of parole for aggravated murder, and four years for the other charges. Weaver appealed the conviction to the Fifth District Court of Appeals, which upheld the trial court’s decision. In 2018, the Supreme Court of Ohio declined to review her case.

Ineffective Assistance of Counsel Claim Raised
In 2017, Weaver sought postconviction relief, arguing she was entitled to a new sentencing hearing  because her trial counsel was ineffective. Her petition included a report from an expert on neonaticide, stating Weaver fit the typical personality and demographic profile, and her actions followed the general pattern of neonaticide. The petition also stated that her sentence was disproportionately harsh when compared to sentences given to others convicted of this crime. Weaver argued the attorney failed to present evidence concerning neonaticide.

The petition was filed with the same trial judge who sentenced her to life in prison. Without a hearing, the judge denied her request to present new legal claims in her case. Weaver appealed to the Fifth District, which found that, based on the report from the neonaticide expert, the trial judge should conduct a hearing to determine if Weaver’s lawyer represented her effectively at her sentencing. The case returned to the trial court.

At the trial court hearing, Diana Barnes, a psychotherapist who specializes in maternal mental health, testified about pregnancy negation, a syndrome that includes pregnancy denial and concealment, and which elevates the risk for neonaticide following childbirth. Muskingum County prosecutors cross-examined Barnes, but did not present their own expert testimony. After closing arguments concluded, the trial judge immediately announced his decision from the bench. The judge stated that Barnes’ testimony was “the most unusual” he had heard in 40 years from an expert witness and noted she was not a medical doctor. The judge found her testimony “unbelievable” and denied Weaver postconviction relief.

Weaver appealed to the Fifth District, which expressed some concerns with the trial judge’s actions during the hearing, but affirmed his decision.

Weaver appealed to the Supreme Court. She argued that the trial court denied her petition based on its biases and personal attitude towards the evidence and the Fifth District incorrectly deferred to the trial court’s assessment of witness credibility. The Court agreed to hear the case.

Supreme Court Examines Postconviction Hearing Proceedings
Chief Justice O’Connor explained that the trial court was obligated at the evidentiary hearing to objectively consider Weaver’s claim that her lawyer was ineffective by failing to present information concerning neonaticide at her sentencing.

Weaver argued the hearing was not fair because of the trial judge’s personal disbelief in the credibility of Barnes, the psychotherapist specializing in maternal mental health. The opinion explained that a trial judge does not have to believe an expert witness’s testimony, but may not arbitrarily disregard an expert’s opinion and that “some reason must be objectively present” for doing so.

The opinion noted the judge made his distaste for Barnes quite clear. The trial court seemed to believe that Barnes was “essentially making up her testimony as she went along,” despite the fact that the personality profile and neonaticide patterns she discussed were supported by years of research, some of which was provided to the trial court in a report before she testified.

“A personal disbelief of research is not an objective basis for discrediting an expert witness,” the opinion stated.

The Court stated the trial court never indicated that it used any of the “accepted indicators” for making a witness credibility determination, such as “demeanor, gestures, voice inflections, or other observations of Barnes.”

“Rather, the findings the trial court did make concerning Dr. Barnes were immaterial as to her credibility and demonstrated the court’s fundamental misunderstanding of neonaticide,” the opinion stated. 

The Court also concluded the trial court’s arbitrary and unreasonable attitude toward the evidence was further demonstrated by its inappropriate questioning of the state’s witnesses and cursory analysis as to why Weaver’s counsel was effective.

Attorney Performance Was Deficient
The Court concluded the lawyer’s decision to not introduce detailed evidence of neonaticide as a mitigating factor was deficient. But to find the lawyer was ineffective, Weaver also had to prove that if the lawyer had not made the error, the outcome of the case would be different, the opinion noted.

The opinion stated the expert testimony and neonaticide evidence could have created a “compelling narrative” that Weaver’s actions were not a premeditated attempt to kill the baby, but rather were acts of desperation and panic from an immature and isolated young woman. And based on cases where other women convicted of neonaticide received lighter sentences than Weaver, there is a reasonable probability that her sentence would have been different but for her counsel’s deficient performance, the Court concluded.

Court Second-Guesses Trial Strategy, Dissent Maintains
Instead of ordering a different judge to conduct a new evidentiary hearing on Weaver’s postconviction relief petition, the Court majority has improperly ordered a new sentencing hearing, the dissent stated. In doing so, the majority “second-guesses the strategy” used by Weaver’s original attorney, the dissent concluded.

Justice DeWine wrote even if the Supreme Court gave full credit to the evidence Weaver’s experts presented, it does not establish that her trial lawyer was ineffective. At her trial, Weaver conceded she was guilty of abuse of a corpse and tampering with evidence based on disposing of the baby’s body, but denied intentionally suffocating the baby. She claimed the baby died of natural causes shortly after birth.

Justice DeWine wrote that by criticizing the strategic decisions made by Weaver’s attorney, the Court majority is engaged in “Monday-morning quarterbacking.” To argue during the trial that she did not kill the child, then present an entirely new theory at sentencing that she did, would be a “tall order” for any defense attorney, the dissent noted. It would require an expert to explain that Weaver was in a state of pregnancy negation at the time she killed her baby “even though she testified under oath that she hadn’t killed the baby,” the dissent stated.

2021-0622. State v. Weaver, Slip Opinion No. 2022-Ohio-4371.

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