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Court News Ohio

Death Sentence Vacated over Advisement of Defendant Rights

Image is a headshot of inmate George C. Brinkman

George C. Brinkman

Image is a headshot of inmate George C. Brinkman

George C. Brinkman

Because the trial judge failed to verbally advise George C. Brinkman at the time he pleaded guilty that he was waiving his rights to confront witnesses against him and to have his guilt proved beyond a reasonable doubt, the Ohio Supreme Court today vacated his convictions and death sentences.

A unanimous Supreme Court ruled that the trial court failed to fully advise Brinkman of his constitutional rights before he pleaded guilty to charges relating to the murder of a North Royalton woman and her two daughters in 2017. The trial court’s failure to strictly comply with the requirements of Rule 11(C)(2)(c) of the Ohio Rules of Criminal Procedure invalidated the guilty plea, the opinion stated.

Writing for the Court, Chief Justice Maureen O’Connor expressed disappointment in the trial court, prosecutors, and Brinkman’s lawyers for failing “to adhere to the level of diligence expected in, and essential to, our criminal justice system.”

“This inattention is impermissible, especially in a case such as this in which a death sentence is on the line,” she wrote.

The Court remanded the case to the Cuyahoga County Common Pleas Court for new proceedings.

Court Accepted Accused Man’s Plea
Brinkman was charged with aggravated murder with death-penalty specifications, aggravated burglary, kidnapping, and abuse of a corpse regarding the murder of a woman and her daughters. He initially pleaded not guilty to the charges, but during a pretrial hearing he told the trial court that he wanted to plead guilty.

At a November 2018 hearing, the trial judge began a formal discussion with Brinkman known as a “colloquy” to ensure that Brinkman was “knowingly, intelligently, and voluntarily” waiving his rights as required by law.

The judge asked Brinkman if he was satisfied with his legal representation and if he understood he was giving up certain constitutional rights by pleading guilty. Brinkman answered “yes,” to the questions.

The judge then stated he was going to go through each of the rights and asked if Brinkman understood that he had a right to an attorney, a right to a trial by jury or judge, and a right through the use of a subpoena to compel witnesses to come to court and testify on his behalf. Brinkman said he understood. The judge then asked if he understood that he had the right to remain silent, and that no one could make a comment about his silence to the jury. He said he did.

The judge read each offense to which Brinkman was pleading and the possible sentences for each offense. Brinkman pleaded guilty to each offense. The judge stated: “All right. At this point, the record should reflect the court does accept the pleas, finds they are knowingly and voluntarily, with a full understanding of [Brinkman’s] rights, entered at this point.”

The judge then added, “[i]f the record is unclear, we’ve accepted the plea, haven’t entered any judgment at this point.”

Colloquy Repeated after Mistake Realized
Because of the death penalty implications, the case proceeded to a sentencing phase, which lasted three days. Two days after the sentencing phase was completed and four days after Brinkman originally entered his guilty pleas, the trial court noted that it had reviewed the transcript of the first colloquy and “noticed that there were some omissions that were not thoroughly covered.”

The trial court then conducted a second colloquy with Brinkman, covering the same questions as the first, but adding a question asking if he understood he had a right to have the state, through its prosecuting attorney, prove his guilt beyond a reasonable doubt, and that his attorneys would have a right to confront and cross-examine every state witness. Brinkman said he did.

After conducting the second colloquy, the judge asked the prosecutors and Brinkman’s lawyers if everyone was satisfied with the colloquy, and no one objected. The court then sentenced Brinkman to death for all three capital offenses and a 47-year prison term for the noncapital offenses.

Death-penalty sentences trigger an automatic appeal to the Ohio Supreme Court.

Supreme Court Considered Colloquy Omissions
In his appeal, Brinkman raised 13 arguments, known as propositions of law, including that the trial court failed to comply with Crim.R. 11(C)(2)(c) prior to accepting his plea, which made the plea invalid.

Chief Justice O’Connor wrote that according to the rule, a court cannot accept a guilty plea without first doing the following: “Informing the defendant and determining that the defendant understands that by the plea the defendant is waiving the rights to jury trial, to confront witnesses against him or her, to have compulsory process for obtaining witnesses in the defendant’s favor, and to require the state to prove the defendant’s guilt beyond a reasonable doubt at a trial at which the defendant cannot be compelled to testify against himself or herself.”

Citing the Court’s 2008 State v. Veney decision, the opinion stated the Supreme Court requires strict, not substantial, compliance with the rule and failure to do so invalidates the plea.

The Cuyahoga County Prosecutor’s Office argued Brinkman’s plea was valid because the court did not accept his guilty plea until after his second colloquy, when the trial court provided all the information required by the rule. The Court rejected the argument, noting that right after the first colloquy the trial court stated, “At this point, the record should reflect the court does accept the pleas…”

The Supreme Court also noted the prosecutor’s argument contradicts the state law addressing guilty pleas in death penalty cases. R.C 2945.06 states that “if the accused pleads guilty to aggravated murder,” then a three-judge panel “shall examine the witnesses, determine whether the accused is guilty of aggravated murder or any other offense, and pronounce sentence accordingly.”

Brinkman’s second colloquy took place four days after the panel accepted his guilty plea and after the state had presented evidence of Brinkman’s guilt. The state argued that if Brinkman was confused about the rights he waived, he or his attorney could have taken the issue to the three-judge panel or sought to withdraw his guilty plea after the second colloquy.

In rejecting the state’s argument, the Supreme Court stated the Veney decision made it clear that a court cannot rely on other sources to convey constitutional rights to the defendant. It is the trial court’s duty to ensure the defendant has a full understanding of the plea and its consequences, the opinion stated.

Error Persists in Criminal Sentencing, Court Noted
The opinion stated this is not the first time the Supreme Court has addressed a trial court’s obligation under Crim.R. 11. It cited six cases, including one as recent as 2020, in which it addressed the obligations under the rule, and reiterated prior sentiments regarding trial courts’ erroneous application of Crim.R. 11, noting that in each instance “the trial court error was easily avoidable.”

“Because of the essential constitutional rights that a defendant waives by pleading guilty, this court, time and time again, has emphasized the seriousness of the plea decision and the importance of a trial court’s compliance with Crim.R. 11(C),” the opinion stated.

The opinion suggested trial courts should use Crim.R. 11 “as a checklist and explain the information to the defendant in a manner that can be easily understood.”

The trial court did not provide the required information in the first colloquy and neither the prosecutors, nor defense attorneys, made the court aware of the omission at the time, the Supreme Court noted. In the second colloquy, the trial court only provided Brinkman the “bare minimum” and the attorneys agreed it was “satisfactory.” The Supreme Court concluded the “inattention is impermissible” and ordered the trial court to conduct new proceedings. 

2019-0303. State v. Brinkman, Slip Opinion No. 2021-Ohio-2473.

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