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January 6, 2011

Brutal Ohio mass murderer cops plea and avoids death penalty

As detailed in this local story, which is headlined "Knox County man pleads guilty in dismemberment slayings; Matthew Hoffman could be sentenced to life in prison," a high-profile Ohio multiple murder case is now a (simple?) sentencing case after a plea.  Here are the details:

Matthew Hoffman pleaded guilty this morning in the horrific dismemberment slayings of a Knox County woman, her son and a family friend.  Hoffman acknowledged his responsibility for the crimes before Knox County Common Pleas Court Judge Otho Eyster.  He faces a sentence of life in prison without parole.

Hoffman fatally stabbed Tina Herrmann, 32; her son Kody Maynard, 11; and family friend Stephanie Sprang, 41, in Herrmann's home in Apple Valley on Nov. 10 and then cut up their bodies.  Hoffman, 30, an unemployed tree trimmer, then scaled a tall beech tree in a wildlife area northwest of Mount Vernon and deposited garbage bags containing the dismembered remains of the victims in the hollow of the tree.

The remains were located with Hoffmann's assistance on Nov. 18, eight days after the victims — and a 13-year-old girl — disappeared, triggering a massive search of the county by officials and citizen volunteers.  The girl was found bound and gagged, but alive, in the basement of Hoffman's home near downtown Mount Vernon on Nov. 14 when authorities stormed the house.  Hoffman was charged with raping the girl.

Hoffman, who was being held in lieu of a $1 million cash bond, was indicted on Monday by a Knox County grand jury on charges that include three counts of aggravated murder, rape and aggravated burglary.  Knox County Prosecutor John Thatcher said that the indictment did not contain death-penalty specifications in accordance with the wishes of the victims' families.

I have highlighted the final sentence here in part because I find notable (and perhaps controversial and perhaps incomplete) the reason given by the local prosecutor not to seek the death penalty for Hoffman.  Here are three thoughts about that decision:

First, I cannot help but wonder if a decision to take death off the table was actually made (perhaps with family input) back in November in order to induce Hoffman to tell authorities where he hid the bodies.  I worry that this case (like the Green River Killer case in the northwest a few years ago) showcases that a mass murderer can avoid the death penalty by hiding his victims' bodies effectively.

Second, though I strongly believe victims' interests should be an important factor in all sentencing determinations, I do not think these interests alone should be a conclusive factor preventing prosecutors from seeking the death penalty.  Perhaps other factors support a sentence less than death for Hoffman, but I would like to know more about those factors to feel entirely comfortable as an Ohio citizen with how this case is being resolved.

Third, I wonder if anyone can articulate reasons for giving Hoffman a sentence of less than life in prison without parole.  If not, it suggests ultimately that folks generally agree that Hoffman deserves the most severe possible sentence and that any debate about Hoffman's fate is really a debate over what folks think ought to be the most severe possible sentence in Ohio.

January 6, 2011 at 11:18 AM | Permalink


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Part of the consideration may have been sparing the surviving victim from having to testify in court.

Posted by: defendergirl | Jan 6, 2011 11:34:04 AM

In extension, would also look at the John Gardner case involving Chelsea King and Amber Dubois. Had he not committed the first murder and effectively got away with it, he would be looking at going to trial in the Chelsea King murder and most probably getting the death penalty. Another case of successful body hiding to avoid the death penalty.

Posted by: Eric Knight | Jan 6, 2011 11:39:26 AM

Perhaps one ought to consider also whether the cost of a death penalty trial was also a factor in the plea bargaining process. I believe it is well documented that small counties, like Knox County, rarely have the resources to fund a capital case.

Posted by: another afpd | Jan 6, 2011 1:36:43 PM

The state, and not the victim, has the say-so on whether to prosecute in all serious cases; in most other cases, the victim's input can be considered. The victim has a strong voice in issues of punishment and when the victim supports less than the maximum sentence, the victim’s position should generally carry the day. This is more so in the case of the death penalty. There are many reasons why a victim may not want to pursue the death penalty: to avoid reliving the pain and horror–in this case, for the sake of the survivor, but also for the rest of the family. Also the family may want to avoid the years in which it must remain engaged as the death penalty case slowly winds its way through the legal system–some victims legitimately may want “closure” fairly quickly. Some victims may legitimately not want to spend years clamoring for and hoping for the death of another, for religious or moral or personal reasons. And some victims may quite legitimately view life without possibility of parole to be a harsher punishment than the death penalty. Certainly, the lifer will not get the legal attention the person on death row gets. So, particularly when it comes to the death penalty, I think the state has no stake in the punishment that would justify it overriding a victim’s wish to not pursue death.

Posted by: t | Jan 6, 2011 3:45:22 PM

This seems like a useful compromise before outright abolition: pass a law to allow the death penalty but only if the defendant is offered but declines to plea guilty and get life without parole.

Posted by: . | Jan 6, 2011 3:50:20 PM

That seems like a horrible compromise. Only people who choose to exercise their constitutional right to a jury trial would be executed. Further, the class of defendants who refuse to plead guilty to life without parole would include a substantial number of innocent people. We would execute a lot more innocent people than we do now.

It's also unconstitutional. US v. Jackson, 390 U.S. 570

Posted by: Paul | Jan 6, 2011 4:52:37 PM

With two-thirds of the states and two-thirds of the public supporting the DP (along with President Obama and every other President); Gregg as the reigning precedent; no sitting SCOTUS Justice on record opposing it; its world-wide practice throughout Asia, the Middle East, Africa, the Subcontinent, and the Caribbean in addition to the USA; and the recent Republican wave in both Congress and state legislatures -- with all that, why would retentionists think about "a compromise before outright abolition?" The prospect of "outright abolition" is a pipedream.

If anyone ought to be thinking about compromise, it would be abolitionists. They might just find that pragmatism and keeping an open mind about the DP in individual cases works better than shouting that the opposition (meaning most of the citizenry) is a bunch of bloodthirsty wahoos.

Posted by: Bill Otis | Jan 6, 2011 9:23:21 PM

According to the prosecutor's statement, the decision was made prior to the bodies being found. The family unanimously approved a plea for life without parole (not life) in exchange for information on where the bodies were AND a guilty plea.

Posted by: Lyn | Jan 7, 2011 10:54:15 AM

Hello, I am Brian, paralegal student. I don't know why court overturned and life sentence has been imposed rather than death sentence on this merciless killer. It could be the “teeth for the teeth", "nail for the nail" or "tit for tat" attitude has been changed a lot. Maybe, it is being imposed for the sake of our society. We are looking forward and hope for the best.

Posted by: George Allen | Jan 11, 2011 2:51:00 AM

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