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December 8, 2022

Ohio Supreme Court splits over ineffectiveness of counsel who "failed to explain neonaticide" at sentencing

The Ohio Supreme Court today issued an notable split decision that ultimately rules that a notable defendant had received ineffective assistance of counsel when sentenced to life without parole in a sad case of neonaticide.  The ruling in State v. Weaver, Slip Op. No. 2022-Ohio-4371 (Oh. Dec. 8, 2023) (available here) is very well summarized at the start of this official court summary:

The Supreme Court of Ohio has ordered a new sentencing hearing for a former college student sentenced to life in prison for the murder of her newborn baby in the bathroom of her sorority house.  In 4-3 decision, the Supreme Court ruled that Emile Weaver received ineffective assistance of counsel when her lawyer failed to explain neonaticide, which is the murder of an infant within 24 hours of birth, at her sentencing hearing and how neonaticide is “not considered a premeditated act” but rather an act “within the context of extreme panic.”

The decision reversed the Fifth District Court of Appeals, which found the Muskingum County Common Pleas Court did not abuse its discretion by denying Weaver’s claim that her counsel was ineffective.  Weaver filed a petition for postconviction relief, alleging that her lawyer failed to present a complete explanation of neonaticide during sentencing which could have led to a less severe punishment.  The same judge who sentenced Weaver to life in prison without the possibility of parole denied her petition.  The trial judge discredited an expert witness who tried to explain Weaver’s condition.

Writing for the Court majority, Chief Justice Maureen O’Connor stated that the trial judge demonstrated an arbitrary and unreasonable attitude toward the evidence of neonaticide and pregnancy-negation syndrome. “Not only did the trial court misunderstand the evidence pertaining to neonaticide and pregnancy-negation syndrome, but it demonstrated a willful refusal to consider such evidence,” Chief Justice O’Connor wrote.

The Court remanded the case to the trial court with instructions that another trial judge conduct the sentencing.  Justices Michael P. Donnelly, Melody Stewart, and Jennifer Brunner joined the chief justice’s opinion.

In a dissenting opinion, Justice R. Patrick DeWine wrote that Weaver’s lawyer was not ineffective for failing to explain why she would commit neonaticide.  He noted that Weaver’s defense at trial was that she did not kill her baby, but rather that the baby died of natural causes.  Expecting the defense to explain how Weaver suffered from pregnancy negation would undermine the argument that she did not kill the baby, he concluded.  Justices Sharon L. Kennedy and Patrick F. Fischer joined Justice DeWine’s opinion.

Here are the basic details of the crimes as decribed by in the majority opinion:

In the fall of 2014, Weaver returned as a sophomore to Muskingum University in New Concord, Ohio, where she lived in a campus sorority house.  After Weaver visited a wellness center to obtain birth control, the center reached out to her to let her know that she was pregnant, but Weaver testified that she had never looked at or read the message from the center.  Weaver also testified that she did not “completely” believe that she was pregnant, because she did not show the normal signs of pregnancy — specifically, she did not (1) gain weight, (2) have morning sickness or exhaustion, or (3) stop menstruating.  Throughout her pregnancy, Weaver consistently denied that she was pregnant when either her sorority sisters or other people asked, and she never told her mother.  At trial, Weaver explained that she had lied about her pregnancy because she was scared, “felt like [she] had no one,” and was “worried about * * * getting in trouble.”  Weaver did, however, discuss her pregnancy with her boyfriend — whom she had a “rocky relationship” with — and he encouraged her not to tell anyone.  Weaver described him as “controlling and judgmental,” as well as “abusive.”

On April 22, 2015, believing that she was having a bowel movement, Weaver went to the sorority-house bathroom.  Shortly thereafter, she realized that she was in labor and silently, without assistance, delivered the baby into the toilet. Later that day, two sorority members discovered the baby in a trash bag lying next to the sorority house.

December 8, 2022 at 03:34 PM | Permalink


Don't know enough about Ohio law to comment on the specific finding of prejudice in this case (i.e. the strength of mitigation argument), but part of this case seems to flow from the difficulty of applying Strickland to sentencing. Strickland is easy to apply to the guilt phase -- either the evidence significantly alters the likelihood of the jury finding all of the elements or it doesn't. And it is relatively easy to apply to capital sentencing where the jury/court has two options -- death or life.

But it is very hard to apply to regular sentencing where the options multiply and the "proper sentence" is determined by the idiosyncracies of the sentencer (which is supposed to be discarded in the Strickland analysis). I know that there are several opinions in my state which struggle to determine the proper weight/deference to give to the finding of the trial court that the new sentencing evidence would not have altered the sentence imposed (by that judge). Unfortunately, these cases tend to come down to both the trial judge and the appellate judges evaluating how the proposed new theory/evidence would have impacted their view of the proper sentence because, of course, every judge is the "reasonable judge" rather than the "idiosyncratic judge."

Posted by: tmm | Dec 9, 2022 10:58:46 AM

Too bad Emilie wasn't an abortion doctor in Illinois--she'd have no duty, thanks Barack Obama, to protect the baby's life.

Posted by: federalist | Dec 9, 2022 12:30:19 PM

Yes, Federalist, that is too bad. Guess that's how our federal system works: what's perfectly legal in one state is illegal in another. I suppose you think there should be a federal law addressing the subject?

Posted by: Da Man | Dec 12, 2022 11:33:00 AM

I would argue that the Equal Protection Clause protects babies once they are born. But that's not really the point of my post. It's to show that this college student's acts are on a par with Barack Obama's chilling fight to protect doctors rather than babies.

Posted by: federalist | Dec 19, 2022 1:18:01 PM

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