COLUMBUS — Did Putnam County resident Travis Soto have a “reasonable expectation of finality” that a deal with prosecutors in the death of his young son would prevent him from facing more serious charges when the true facts surrounding the child’s death came to light 10 years later?
That was at the heart of questions raised by Ohio Supreme Court justices Wednesday during oral arguments in the state’s case against the 32-year-old Continental man.
Soto served a five-year prison sentence for child endangering in the death of Julio Baldazo, his 2-year-old son, after accepting a deal from Putnam County prosecutors in 2006 that included the dismissal of a related charge of involuntary manslaughter.
At the time, Soto said his son’s death in an all terrain vehicle mishap was accidental, but following his release from prison Soto — during what Supreme Court justices on Wednesday referred to as an apparent “crisis of conscience” — confessed to killing his son and staging the death to look like an accident.
Soto subsequently was charged in Putnam County Common Pleas Court with aggravated murder, murder, felonious assault, kidnapping and tampering with evidence.
Soto’s attorney appealed that decision to the Third District Court of Appeals on the basis that trying his client on the murder charges after the state had previously dismissed a similar charge of involuntary manslaughter would violate Soto’s double-jeopardy rights.
In a split verdict, the appellate court agreed. In his written opinion, Justice Stephen Shaw said the double jeopardy standard existed “because the defendant has been convicted and served his sentence for the offense pleaded to in exchange for dismissing” a charge of involuntary manslaughter. Justice John Willamowski concurred with Shaw’s opinion.
In dissent, Justice William Zimmerman wrote that double jeopardy “applies to both successive punishments and to successive prosecutions for the same criminal offense.” Zimmerman said Soto was only punished for endangering his son, not for his murder, and, “as such, and under the facts presented, jeopardy never attached in this case.”
During arguments before the high court on Wednesday, Putnam County Prosecuting Attorney Gary Lammers argued the Third District Court of Appeals decision should be set over-ruled.
He told the justices that Soto’s third version of the child’s death so drastically changed the facts of the case that an earlier negotiated plea deal which wiped away an involuntary manslaughter charge with a child endangering predicate is no longer something that the defendant can “hide behind.”
“The point I stress is that although the defendant had the right to remain silent (as the case against him was prepared) it is our belief that he chose to tamper with evidence and engage in fraud and for that reason should not be able to avoid prosecution for a greater offense,” Lammers told the justices.
“We believe it is unreasonable for the defendant to believe that if those facts ever came out that he would not be subject to prosecution.”
Questions posed by the justices to Lammers and Defense Attorney Carley Edelstein of Columbus seemed to suggest the court was leaning in favor of overturning the appellate court decision.
Chief Justice Maureen O’Connor, along with Associate Justices Michael Donnelly, Patrick Fischer, Sharon Kennedy, Judith French, Patrick DeWine and Melody Stewart, heard the arguments. O’Connor said a ruling would be issued by the court at a later date.
Reach J Swygart at 567-242-0464.