WAVERLY, Ohio – The first day of the first trial of the first suspect in the 2016 murders of a Pike County, Ohio family ended without a jury on Monday.
Twelve potential jurors were seated, and five were replaced after questioning. The process will continue Tuesday, with the 53 remaining members of the jury pool asked to return in the event they are needed.
Rhoden family slayings:First Pike County murder trial underway this week
The Pike County Common Pleas Court in Waverly, Ohio, was nearly empty as the day began. Lawyers and court personnel took seats in front of Judge Randy Deering, with defendant George Wagner IV seated between his two attorneys.
George Wagner IV charged in the killing of multiple members of Rhoden family
Wagner, 30, is charged with eight counts of aggravated murder in the killing of seven members of Pike County’s Rhoden family and one future member. He’s also charged with 14 related crimes, including conspiracy, tampering with evidence, forgery, computer hacking, interception of electronic communications, obstructing justice and corruption.
Wagner entered a not guilty plea to the charges, as did his father, George “Billy” Wagner III. The elder Wagner will be tried in the same court on similar charges at a later date. Wagner IV’s mother and brother last year pleaded guilty in the case, Ohio’s largest ever criminal investigation.
Pike County:Wagner family arrested in the Rhoden family massacre
State officials maintain that the Wagners killed the Rhodens after a custody battle. Wagner IV’s younger brother, Edward “Jake” Wagner, was seeking custody of a then-2-year-old daughter he had with victim Hanna Rhoden.
Jury pool floods the courtroom for trial of Pike County massacre
On Monday, Judge Deering started the day in court by denying Wagner’s motion to strike the entire jury pool for having too few working-class candidates.
After that, Wagner spoke for the only time during nearly eight hours of proceedings. When Deering asked if he understood he had the right to participate in jury visits to crime scenes, he said, “Yes, sir.” Asked next if he wanted to waive that right, he repeated, “Yes, sir.”
The visits (called jury views) are likely this Thursday and Friday.
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Just before 9 a.m., members of the jury pool – 19 men and 51 women, only one appearing to be a person of color –filled the courtroom. Over the course of the day, lawyers called them by name, with strict instruction from Deering that their identities remain confidential outside of the courtroom.
Attorneys for Wagner and the state of Ohio asked potential jurors many of the same questions. Among them: Do they know other potential jurors? Do they understand that the state bears the burden to prove charges against Wagner beyond a reasonable doubt? Can they accept that evidence will include graphic photos of murder?
And Special Prosecutor Angela Canepa read a list of 264 potential witnesses to learn if potential jurors had any personal or professional relationships with them. The list includes Wagner IV’s immediate family members and grandmothers.
Questions hint at what’s to come
Beyond that, lawyers for both sides asked questions that hinted at possible evidence or testimony to come in a trial that is expected to last six to eight weeks.
State Prosecutor Angela Canepa, for instance, told potential jurors that a single witness or circumstantial evidence can sometimes be sufficient to prove truth beyond a reasonable doubt.
She also defined complicity for members of the jury pool, noting that the getaway driver is as culpable as the bank robber. “Once you commit to a criminal plan,” she said, “it is on both people.”
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In his turn at the podium, defense attorney John Parker reminded prospective jurors that Wagner has the right to testify or decline to testify – and neither choice proves guilt or innocence.
Parker also asked questions about family relationships. Should a child be judged by what his parents do? What do you think of homeschooling? Do you know people who have mental health issues, drug or alcohol issues, or “different lifestyles”? Do you know families who keep secrets from each other or favor one child over another?
And more than once, Parker turned to his client and asked members of the jury pool, “Do you have any problem looking over at Mr. Wagner and giving him the presumption of innocence?”
Potential jurors may not discuss case
Deering also repeated instructions to the jury pool, reminding them not to discuss the case with anyone, in or outside the courthouse.
The judge also clarified his guidance to attorneys about speaking to news media. They may answer procedural questions, he said, but not discuss the merits of the case.
News:George Wagner IV’s brother and mother can testify against him in Rhoden murders, judge rules
Wagner attended court in civilian clothes and without visible restraints. When he was escorted from the courthouse through a back door around 5 p.m., he was restrained, heavily guarded and wearing an orange jumpsuit.
Members of the jury pool were asked to return at 9 a.m. Tuesday, when the court is aiming to seat 12 jurors and six alternates.
Opening statements are expected next Tuesday, after the jury views later this week and the Labor Day holiday.
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