Supreme Court Affirms Death Sentence for Killer of Mother and Two Children
The Ohio Supreme Court has affirmed the death penalty of a man who killed his ex-girlfriend and two children on Thanksgiving Day six years ago.
The Supreme Court voted 6-1 to uphold the conviction and sentence of Caron Montgomery, who stabbed to death Tia Hendricks; their 2-year-old-son, Tyron; and Hendricks’ 9-year-old daughter Tahlia, in their north Columbus home. Montgomery waived his right to a jury and pleaded guilty to the charges before a three-judge panel, which sentenced him to death. Writing for the Court majority, Justice Judith L. French explained that most of Montgomery’s appeal centers on whether the trial court and the attorneys involved followed proper procedures.
In a dissenting opinion, Justice William M. O’Neill noted that Montgomery told the judges has was on two prescription drugs to treat depression when he entered his guilty plea. Justice O’Neill wrote that Montgomery should have received a medical evaluation to ensure the medication did not impact his judgment before the court accepted his plea.
Montgomery Arrested in Hendricks’ Apartment
Police reported that Hendricks called 911 on Thanksgiving morning in 2010 and the dispatcher could hear her yelling “Caron, Caron,” but she did not state her address. Police traced the call to a residence about a hundred yards from Hendricks’ apartment, but did not locate her. Her family contacted the police the next day expressing concern because Hendricks and her children did not show up for Thanksgiving dinner.
Police found Hendricks’ home locked from the inside with a chain lock, which they broke, and discovered Hendricks and her two children dead on the living room floor. Officers found Montgomery in the master bedroom with superficial injuries to his neck, head, arms, and hands. He had a 12-inch knife slightly lodged in his neck that fell off him when police moved him.
Autopsy reports indicated Hendricks was stabbed more than 20 times. The children both died from knife wounds to their necks. DNA testing matched Montgomery to the knife and found his shoe prints in the bloody area where the three were killed. Montgomery’s DNA also was found in Hendricks’ car.
Charged With Aggravated Murder, Montgomery Pleads Guilty
Montgomery was indicted on two counts of aggravated murder with respect to each child: one for prior calculation and design under R.C. 2903.01(A), and one for murder of a person under the age of 13 under R.C. 2903.01(C). The four aggravated-murder counts included capital specifications for course of conduct (R.C. 2929.04(A)(5)) and for murder of a child younger than 13 years old (R.C. 2929.04(A)(9)). The charge for Tahlia’s murder included a third capital specification for murder to escape detection, apprehension, trial, or punishment for another offense (R.C. 2929.04(A)(3)). For the death of their mother, he was charged with one count of murder under R.C. 2903.02(A) and one count of domestic violence under R.C. 2919.25(A).
Montgomery waived a jury trial and pleaded guilty in May 2012, and a three-judge panel conducted a plea hearing required by R.C. 2945.06. They then returned guilty verdicts on all counts and specifications. The judges conducted a mitigation hearing where Montgomery presented seven witnesses and made a statement. Regarding the aggravated murder convictions of the two children, the panel determined the aggravating circumstances outweighed the mitigating factors beyond a reasonable doubt and sentenced him to death. The panel further ordered him to serve 15 years to life in prison for Hendricks’ murder.
Montgomery Questions Validity of Guilty Plea
Montgomery argued that his jury waiver and guilty plea were not “knowing, intelligent, and voluntary,” as required by law. He claimed the judges’ discussion with him about those decisions were inadequate and the panel should have inquired further into his mental health and use of prescription drugs before accepting his waiver and plea.
Justice French noted that Montgomery’s lawyers presented the court with Montgomery’s signed jury waiver and indicated they reviewed it with him, explained that he had a constitutional right to a jury trial, and advised him that by waiving it a three-judge panel would determine his guilt and punishment, which could include a death sentence. The attorneys told the trial court they believed Montgomery was mentally competent and understood what he was doing, and the judges conducted a colloquy with Montgomery asking him several questions to determine if they believed he was competent and making his own decisions.
Montgomery told the judges he was under the influence of Thorazine and Risperdal for depression, but denied having been diagnosed with any other “mental issues.”
Montgomery also told the judges that his attorneys reviewed his written guilty plea with him and they had been “diligent and effective” in representing him.
Citing the Ohio Supreme Court’s 1996 State v. Engle decision, Justice French wrote that a guilty plea that is not knowing, intelligent, and voluntary violates the Ohio and U.S. constitutions, and it is the trial court’s duty to ensure that Montgomery had a full understanding of the consequences of his plea. In this case, the panel conducted a thorough colloquy with Montgomery and his attorneys, she concluded.
On appeal, Montgomery contended the panel did not do enough to determine the effect, if any, the prescription medication had on his mental state, but the Court majority disagreed.
“The panel had no reason to believe that Montgomery had any issues with competence or could not intelligently and voluntarily enter a guilty plea,” she wrote. “Throughout the nearly 18 months preceding Montgomery’s guilty plea, the presiding judge repeatedly observed Montgomery and spoke with him and his two defense attorneys. Prior to the plea hearing, Montgomery appeared multiple times before the presiding judge, including at the jury waiver hearing, and neither he nor his counsel ever made any representation to the court that he had any mental-health issues or any issues with competency.”
Montgomery Challenges Effectiveness of Trial Attorneys
Montgomery argued that his trial attorneys provided ineffective assistance and that the “cumulative effect” of the errors resulted in his denial of his U.S. Constitution’s Sixth Amendment right to the effective assistance of counsel. Justice French wrote that for the trial attorneys to be considered ineffective, Montgomery must show they were both deficient in performing their duties, and that the deficient performance prejudiced him.
Among his claims were that his lawyers failed to object to certain portions of the testimony of the state’s sole witness in the case, the lead detective from the Columbus Division of Police. The detective’s testimony included gruesome crime scene photos, statements from family members and friends that were made to other investigating officers, and the autopsy reports from the county coroner’s office. The Court concluded the defense handled itself appropriately when they objected to the admission of several photographs, and Montgomery was not prejudiced by any lack of objections.
Montgomery also contended his attorneys were ineffective by advising him to plead guilty without first securing an agreement from the state not to pursue the death penalty. Justice French indicated there is no evidence before the Court that Montgomery was ever offered a plea agreement and Montgomery acknowledged in court that he discussed his options with his attorneys, including whether to try his case before a jury or a three-judge panel.
Justice French wrote that Montgomery’s attorneys were faced with “the formidable task” of defending a man who murdered three people, including two young children, and made a reasonable choice of advising their client to consider a guilty plea before a judicial panel to minimize the effect of the “gruesome facts.”
The Court rejected several other arguments regarding ineffective assistance of counsel and concluded there was no cumulative effect of errors that would lead to a violation of Montgomery’s constitutional rights.
Court Examines Montgomery’s Past and History with Victims
The Supreme Court conducted an independent examination of the aggravating and mitigating circumstances when considering the death penalty. Justice French noted the trial court found Montgomery murdered Hendricks and her two children as part of a “single continuing course of conduct,” and additionally that he killed Tahlia “for the purpose of escaping detection, apprehension, trial, or punishment for another offense.”
The Court noted Montgomery was 37 when the mitigation hearing took place and multiple family members, including two adult sons, testified that he had generally been a positive influence on their lives, although both admitted they had not lived with him for many years. Other family members testified that Montgomery was a good person, but that he did not receive much supervision from his mother and stepfather. Two counselors from Franklin County Children Services testified that as a teenager Montgomery was housed in a residential facility where he behaved himself, and that his mother sometimes failed to pick him up to take him home for authorized weekend visits.
Montgomery apologized for the murders and called them a “selfish act,” and apologized specifically to Hendricks’ mother.
Justice French concluded that the evidence of his chaotic background does not weigh strongly against the circumstances surrounding the murder of the two children, which resulted in the two death penalty convictions.
“Montgomery murdered two young, innocent children, one of whom was his own two-year-old son, and then attempted to make himself appear to be a victim,” she wrote.
The Court affirmed the conviction and sentences on all charges against Montgomery.
Chief Justice Maureen O’Connor and Justices Paul E. Pfeifer, Terrence O’Donnell, Judith Ann Lanzinger, and Sharon L. Kennedy joined the opinion.
Dissent Questions Influence of Medication
In his dissent, Justice O’Neill wrote that the trial court was aware that Montgomery was taking two prescription drugs during the numerous appearances he made before he changed his plea to guilty, but the judges did not order or conduct a competency evaluation.
“One would think that before we permit someone under the influence of two strong medications to enter a guilty to plea to any crime, let alone the ultimate crime of aggravated murder, we would want to make sure that the person fully comprehends what he or she is doing,” he wrote.
He faulted the majority for allowing the trial court to rely on Montgomery’s own statements about his competency and that of his attorneys who were not medical experts.
“This court should not affirm a conviction, let alone a death sentence, by guessing about the mental competence of a defendant. Further inquiry was required before the trial court accepted Montgomery’s plea of guilty,” Justice O’Neill wrote.
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