Allow the public viewing of the Wagner trials

Allow the public viewing of the Wagner trials

September 5, 2022
Petition to
Common Pleas Court Judge Randy Deering and
Signatures: 457Next Goal: 500
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Why this petition matters

Started by John Q. Public

It is the largest, most expensive investigation and trial in the state's history, and while it's solely funded by taxpayers, the public is in jeopardy of viewing the open court proceedings of the Wagner trials.

The slaying of eight members of the Rhoden family in Pike County in April 2016 was the largest murder investigation to ever occur in the state. It would take two years of investigation by hundreds of law enforcement officers and more than 1,100 tips before another family -- the Wagners -- were arrested for the brutal killings; a custody dispute was at the center of the deaths, prosecutors allege.

The mother of the group, Angela Wagner has taken a plea deal and was given thirty years behind bars for her participation. Her son -- arguably the mastermind behind the plot -- Jake Wagner also took a deal, pleading to eight counts of murder in exchange for removing the death penalty from his and his family member's sentence. His father and brother, George "Billy" Wagner III and George Wagner IV both remain charged, and it is George the Fourth whose trial begins this week.

G4's attorneys argue that he did not kill anyone and that the charges of murder should be dropped. The defense raised this argument after Jake Wagner confessed to killing at least five of the eight victims and said that his brother did not kill anyone.

The most expensive criminal case in Ohio
Pike County leaders have said trying the Wagners could cost the county between $2 million and $4 million, 40 percent of the county's general fund budget. The county only has 28,000 residents and competes with nearby Adams and Vinton counties to bare the title of the most impoverished county in the state; in Pike County, 10% of homes still do not have running water.

Factor in the additional expenses of the criminal investigation before the arrests and that adds another $500,000 to $600,000. And, of course, there is the expense of jailing and transporting the four accused. Pike County is one of the few Ohio counties without a jail. That caused financial woes even before six people were arrested and charged in the Rhoden family killings.

Pike County contracts with Butler County for prisoner housing, usually about 50 at a time for $60 per person per day. It's a 140-mile roundtrip. The cost during the year the Wagners were arrested was $1.6 million for housing. That does not include staff time, such as correctional officers, gasoline, vehicle wear-and-tear, or paperwork. Recently, the state has helped offset the expense of transport by sending in an elite S.T.A.R. team, or what is essentially the Ohio Department of Corrections' SWAT team to handle the transportation to and from the court of the Wagners for security purposes.

Then, there's the cost of the Court, the jurors, a security fence erected around the courthouse, additional security, the daily fee paid to the jury, the public defenders, the prosecutors, court personnel, and yes, even food for all the participants; all on the hard-earned taxpayer's dime.

Officials have said the trials have brought the county to the brink of bankruptcy, and while the state has stepped in to help a little bit, such as providing $150,000 to prosecutors a couple of years ago, it still is not enough. Regardless of which account the money comes from, every cent has come from a taxpaying citizen; either on the local level in Pike County or from statewide funds.

The public could lose access to the proceedings
While the trial of the youngest Wagner, George IV, is set to begin Tuesday in the small town, Judge Randy Deering has issued an order that the news media may not record much of the proceedings. In a case that is going to have heartwrenching gruesome details, one could arguably see the Judge's stance, however, we must look beyond the surface.

Historically, news media have reported on public trials so those at home who cannot personally attend may stay informed of the proceedings. After all, it's the taxpayer who is footing the bill, and no bill has ever been as large as the Wagner ones.

Court proceedings, by law, are open to the public. The defense has a right to a "fair" and "public" trial, and the victims have a right to have their stories told.

CourtTV and Law and Crime TV, along with several local television stations and newspapers have been in attendance during the pre-trial phases of the Wagner cases; from day one to picking a jury last week. And, it was last week when the trial kicked off with picking a jury and having the nine women and three men tour the crime scenes before opening arguments on Tuesday against G4. The Judge allowed the news media and broadcast networks to follow along on the two-day trek across southern Ohio that spanned several hundred miles, while the jurors were loaded onto a school bus and a Sheriff's escort paraded the caravan around.

The Judge issued reasonable orders that the media not film jurors and not walk onto private property, which was respected by every media outlet in attendance. In fact, court personnel commented at the end of Thursday how the journalists had been respectful of the proceedings and obeyed the Court's orders; opening arguments are slated for Tuesday.

But a 14-page order issued by Judge Deering jeopardizes the public's participation in the trial -- the public who has been emotionally, financially, and forever marked by the senseless life-taking of an entire family.

In the order, the Judge has said that witnesses may not be recorded in any fashion if they choose. While this is not an uncommon rule, Courts across Ohio and the country have allowed an audio-only feed of the testimony of a witness who asks that their face not be shown; it's a reasonable request for anyone who has been thrust into the spotlight by no fault of their own. And, historically, journalists have followed this rule, honorably, ethically, and without disagreement.

In the recent case of a Delaware County, Ohio man who was accused of killing his wife in what prosecutors alleged was a staged suicide, CourtTV was present and broadcasted the trial. When someone took the witness stand who asked not to be filmed, the network -- which provides the feed to every other news outlet -- respected the wishes of the witness and did not show their face; only streaming their audible testimony; a very common practice in courts across the state and country.

But in the Wagner trial, the defense and prosecutor are the ones who drafted a 14-page "media order" for the Judge to sign, who adopted an archaic rule that not even audio may be recorded, according to court personnel.

The Guardian, along with the Cincinnati Enquirer, CourtTV, Law and Crime TV, WKRC-TV, WXIX-TV, WCPO-TV, and WLWT-TV has hired premiere legal counsel and first amendment right Cincinnati-based attorney Jack Greiner to move the Court to at least follow the rule every other Judge across the state and country has allowed: when a witness says they do not want photographed or filmed, then the audio of their testimony is still shared while their identity and face are concealed. After all, the Court, themselves, are audio-recording the case and those recordings are public.

The media has always been cognitive of the sensitive nature of such horrific criminal cases and are careful to use ethics to not show gruesome crime scene photos and sensitive testimony, and the journalists who have been on the case from day 1 have always respected court orders and the wishes of witnesses in the Wagner proceedings.

But in a trial where more than 250 witnesses will be called; in a trial that has captivated an entire county, state, and country; in a trial that has cost taxpayers millions of dollars; in a trial where a courtroom only seats about 75 people with a population of 30,000 in the county; the coverage by ethical, credentialed journalists is imperative. The public has a right to know what occurs in open court that has changed their own lives, by no fault of their own. This is not 1800. While newspapers are well-respected establishments and are key to our fundamentals, it is 2022, and forms of news consumption have evolved. While seemingly every other Court across the state has gotten on board, at least one Court remains behind the times.

While the Judge is slated to hear a motion by the news organizations on Tuesday to allow -- at a minimum -- the audio of witnesses, it is likely that the request will be denied, thus, shutting the public out of the proceedings and prohibiting ethical real-time reporting from the courtroom, in violation of Rule 12 of the rules outlined by the Ohio Supreme Court. Rule 12 says proceedings "shall" -- not may, but SHALL -- be broadcast or recorded, and in their motion filed on Friday, the journalists have asked the Court to simply follow the rules -- just as the news media has respectfully done since day 1.

If you would like to make your voice heard, click here to send a private note to the Court asking that Pike County Court of Common Pleas comply with Rule 12, step out of the 1800s, and allow the public to partake in the proceeding that they rightfully deserve.


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Signatures: 457Next Goal: 500
Support now