KENTON - When the murder case against her began, Meredith Poling was a girl, her hair in braids, ruffles on the collar of her pale pink shirt.
But a 19-year-old Poling wore bold burgundy and walked into Hardin County Juvenile Court with her long hair flowing and confidence in her step last Tuesday for her first courtroom appearance in more than two years.
Poling is charged with one delinquency count of murder. She denies killing her mother, Michelle Murnahan, 38, who was shot in the back of the head with the family's 12-gauge Mossberg 500 shotgun while playing computer solitaire in her living room on Aug. 31, 2006. Witnesses said the pair had argued that day and that Poling previously had said she was going to kill her mother.
A legal battle between Hardin County Prosecutor Bradford Bailey and Juvenile Court Judge James S. Rapp over whether Poling would be tried as a juvenile or adult went all the way to the Ohio Supreme Court and has stretched on since.
Those involved in the case and some outside observers agree that the protracted battle is unusual. Its length alone has created a variety of questions:
- When the case started, Poling was a juvenile with an absent father and a dead mother, so the court appointed a guardian to look out for her interests. Now that Poling is an adult, should the guardian remain? The prosecutor said no; newly appointed Judge Paul F. Kutscher Jr. said yes.
- Juvenile-court rules don't allow photographs of defendants because they are minors. But Poling is no longer a minor. Can the news media take her picture? The judge is to address this in a hearing today.
- The detention center where she has been held since early 2007 isn't therapy-based or rehabilitation-centered. Inmates typically spend their days in class. Poling has earned a high-school diploma while there. Now what can she do to productively occupy her time?
The legal issue was this: In 2007, a court-appointed psychologist labeled Poling cold and calculating, and a poor candidate for rehabilitation in the juvenile-justice system.
However, Rapp decided to keep jurisdiction of the case in Juvenile Court. In his decision, the judge cited an opposite opinion from a counselor at a private center in Bellefontaine who had seen Poling in both individual and group-therapy sessions at the detention center.
Bailey argued that Rapp abused his authority by relying on information from that counselor that was not presented as evidence in court. Bailey appealed Rapp's decision to Ohio's 3rd District Court of Appeals but lost.
Then, Bailey went to the Ohio Supreme Court and lost again. Next, Bailey asked the court to remove Rapp from the case. While that matter was pending, Rapp voluntarily stepped aside. Kutscher, who is retired from the Seneca County bench, was appointed on April 19.
In the meantime, Poling has spent most of the past few years at the Juvenile Detention Center in Bellefontaine in Logan County.
Dana S. Preisse, administrative judge of the Franklin County Juvenile Court, could not speak about Poling's case directly and is not involved, but she has been a Juvenile Court judge since 1997 and knows the system.
The length of time the case has continued without a resolution is part of what makes it unusual, she said. It's nearly impossible to compare court dockets, but Franklin County judges try to clear delinquency cases within a few months, Preisse said.
One advantage the time might afford the new judge, however, is a degree of hindsight, she said. "When a case does go on, the judge can often look back at the child's behavior in detention and learn a lot from what they did there.
''If they do what they have to and behave appropriately, maybe that's an indicator of their real and natural behavior."
The Logan County sheriff runs the detention center where Poling has been held. Lt. Greg Fitzpatrick said Poling has been a model inmate.
''We've talked around here about how unusual it is, and how we kind of feel sorry for her," Fitzpatrick said, pointing out that she has the presumption of innocence until the case is resolved. "She's been a real role model for the others."
Defense attorney William Kluge didn't want to talk about the case, and the prosecutor did not return phone calls. Judge Rapp also won't discuss it, but he provided a copy of the letter he sent to the Ohio Supreme Court when he recused himself. He wrote that he did nothing wrong in seeking the opinion of the detention-center counselor.
''It is regrettable if some in our community see these protracted proceedings as a battle between the judge and the state's attorney," Rapp wrote. "This is not a situation that promotes respect for our juvenile-justice system.
''I regret if my action should have foreseeably made it more likely that the child, presumed innocent, would have had her trial delayed by almost three years from her arrest. It is my hope that my voluntary recusal ... will speed rather than further delay the ultimate outcome."