Pike County Murders: Ohio lawmakers OK $100K to help cover costs

Ohio lawmakers passed a bill Thursday night that would give Pike County $100,000 to help cover the costs of litigating the four death penalty-eligible cases related to the 2016 Rhoden family massacre. 

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The bill now heads to Gov. John Kasich’s desk for approval. 

Pike County officials have long been concerned about the cost of the eight-victim murder case. Those anxieties increased after the arrests of six people, including four people charged with aggravated murder with death penalty specifications. 

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State legislators last month warned the cases could spell financial disaster for the rural county of 28,000 residents. State Sen. Bob Peterson, R-Washington Court House, said the case has “created substantial costs for the county,” including more than $600,000 to the county sheriff’s office. 

If left unaided during the trial or trials, the county could see the case consume a “devastating” 10-20 percent of its budget, said state Rep. Shane Wilkin, R-Lynchburg. 

The two legislators have introduced a bill that would effectively transfer the fiscal burden of the capital cases from the county purse to the state treasury. 

Doing so could cost Ohio taxpayers more than $1 million, said Ohio Auditor Dave Yost, who supports the legislation. Yost, the attorney general-elect, said costs in the case could include the possibility of sequestering four separate juries for several weeks each and the possibility for changes of venue. 

Last month, a grand jury indicted four members of the Wagner family — George “Billy” Wagner III, Angela Wagner, Edward “Jake” Wagner, and George Wagner IV — on a host of charges, including eight counts of aggravated murder each. Each murder count carries death penalty specifications. Each of the Wagners has pleaded not guilty.

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The eight murder charges are representative of the eight people killed April 22, 2016: Chris Rhoden Sr., Dana Manley Rhoden, Hanna Rhoden, Chris Rhoden Jr., Clarence “Frankie” Rhoden, Kenneth Rhoden, Gary Rhoden, and Hannah “Hazel” Gilley. 

The costs will no doubt increase as prosecution moves forward. Even if just one of the Wagners were convicted and sentenced to the death penalty, that alone would likely cost the state government millions each year. 

A 2014 Dayton Daily News investigation found virtually everything connected to the death penalty carries a high price tag. 

Ohio’s death penalty costs close to $17 million annually, though that sum is actually just a fraction of the true cost. County prosecutors, the courts and the state prison system do not specifically track expenses associated with death penalty cases in Ohio, which would add millions in expenses. 

Studies in other states found that the cost of executing a killer far exceeds what the price tag for locking the offender up for the rest of his or her natural life. Death Row inmates cost more to house, since they are in single cells and guarded with more staff.  

Staff Writers Josh Sweigart and Laura A. Bischoff contributed reporting.

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