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.