Northwest and West Central Ohio has dealt with an incredibly unfortunate situation that may also significantly impact the rest of the United States.
My summary of the facts is brief and simplified. A man named Travis Soto was involved in the 2006 death of his son. Soto told authorities that his son died from injuries sustained from an ATV accident.
Soto was charged with murder and child endangerment. The prosecutor agreed to a plea deal by which Soto pleaded guilty to child endangerment in exchange for the murder charge being dismissed. Soto was sentenced to five years in prison, which Soto served.
In 2016, Soto admitted that Soto had beaten his child to death and that there was no ATV accident.
After Soto’s admission, the prosecutor charged Soto with the murder again.
Soto’s attorneys relied upon the Fourth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution (no person shall be twice put in jeopardy) to argue that Soto was precluded from any additional legal ramifications stemming from the facts associated with Soto’s son’s death.
The legal world generally understands that a person is not “put in jeopardy” until a jury is sworn in, ready to begin a trial. And, in this instance, Soto reached a plea agreement before any jury was put in place to hear Soto’s case.
However, the legal world also recognizes the doctrine of “lesser included offenses” when it comes to double jeopardy.
To understand the principle of “lesser included offenses,” let’s presume that a person is found guilty of murder. Presuming that it is later found out that there was some other illegal aspect of the murder (other than the murder itself), the prosecutor may desire to bring charges on those additional illegalities. The doctrine of lesser included offenses precludes the follow-up charges.
The Putnam County Common Pleas Court decided that Soto’s guilty plea as to child endangerment was not sufficient to invoke “jeopardy” as to the initial murder charge, and the principle of lesser included offenses did not apply.
In a split decision, the Third District Court of Appeals reversed the Common Pleas Court.
But, in October 2019, the Ohio Supreme Court disagreed with the Court of Appeals and ruled that the Fourth Amendment does not preclude prosecution of Soto for murder in this instance.
Notably, the Ohio Supreme Court did indicate that the terms of the plea deal might, in some circumstances like this, preclude the new murder charge. Nevertheless, the Ohio Supreme Court was not presented with the facts necessary in order to rule in favor of Soto on that point.
Soto’s lawyers have stated that they intend to appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court, and the request for that court to hear the appeal is due later this month. I believe that there is a good possibility of this case being heard by the U.S. Supreme Court, even though the court only accepts less than 1% of the appeals it is requested to hear.
Lee R. Schroeder is an Ohio licensed attorney at Schroeder Law LLC in Putnam County. He limits his practice to business, real estate, estate planning and agriculture issues in northwest Ohio. He can be reached at Lee@LeeSchroeder.com or at 419-659-2058. This article is not intended to serve as legal advice, and specific advice should be sought from the licensed attorney of your choice based upon the specific facts and circumstances that you face.