Court News Ohio
Court News Ohio
Court News Ohio

Tuesday, Oct. 5, 2021

State of Ohio v. Christopher L. Whitaker, Case No. 2019-1482
Cuyahoga County Common Pleas Court

Senterra Ltd. v. Alan T. Winland et al., Case No. 2020-0197
Seventh District Court of Appeals (Belmont County)

State of Ohio v. Tyrone Leegrand II, Case No. 2020-0726
Eighth District Court of Appeals (Cuyahoga County)

Man Convicted of Torturing and Murdering Cleveland Teen Argues for Life Sentence

State of Ohio v. Christopher L. Whitaker, Case No. 2019-1482
Cuyahoga County Common Pleas Court

Christopher Whitaker was convicted for the January 2017 kidnapping, rape, and killing of a 14-year-old Cleveland girl. At his trial, he acknowledged that he took the girl’s life. His lawyers focused on mitigating factors to argue for a life sentence.

However, the trial court imposed the death penalty. Because he was sentenced to death, Whitaker is entitled to an automatic appeal to the Ohio Supreme Court.

Fourteen-Year-Old Takes Two Buses to School
The young teen, identified as A.D., commuted to her school each day by taking two public buses. On Jan. 26, 2017, A.D. began her commute about 6:30 a.m. but never returned home. Her body was found three days later in a house not far from where she transferred buses. The medical examiner determined she had suffered extensive injuries, including puncture wounds, stab wounds to her neck, and a broken jaw.

The house was owned by Lavontay McKenzie, who had purchased it from his father in 2016. McKenzie had started the process of remodeling it, with plans to turn it into a group home, but hadn’t visited the house for approximately three months before A.D.’s murder.

Whitaker was arrested in early February 2017. DNA testing of a semen sample from A.D.’s body indicated a match with Whitaker, and witnesses said they saw him in the area the day of the murder. Whitaker waived his Miranda rights and confessed during police questioning.

A grand jury indicted Whitaker on 10 counts, including aggravated murder, rape, kidnapping, aggravated burglary, tampering with evidence, and gross abuse of a corpse.

Defendant Admits to Murder, Focuses on Mitigation
At his trial before a jury in January 2018, Whitaker’s attorneys stated that he was responsible for taking A.D.’s life and wouldn’t contest his guilt. The jury found him guilty of all charges and specifications.

The trial moved to the penalty phase. A psychological expert testified on Whitaker’s behalf. The prosecutor also had a mental-health expert testify. The jury recommended that Whitaker be sentenced to death for aggravated murder, and the trial court adopted the recommendation. Whitaker was sentenced to 48 years in prison on the other charges.

In his appeal to the Ohio Supreme Court, Whitaker raises 21 legal issues.

Purpose of Detailed, Explicit Evidence
Whitaker’s brief notes that a defendant in an Ohio capital case can’t plead guilty in the guilt phase of the trial and also exercise his right to be tried before a jury for the penalty phase. So, Whitaker admitted responsibility for the murder during the guilt phase and focused on arguing during the penalty phase against the death penalty and for a life sentence instead. Despite his admission, Whitaker’s brief states, the prosecutor “describ[ed] in exhaustive and explicit detail” the injuries inflicted on the girl’s body.

Although the state had to prove his guilt, the information about the search for the girl, the amount of blood at the crime scene, the manner in which the girl’s injuries were inflicted, and the detailed photographs presented to the jury weren’t relevant to determining his guilt when he already had admitted responsibility, his brief asserts.

“[N]one of this was presented to prove Mr. Whitaker’s guilt of the specific charges but to inflame the passions of the jury, to make them see him as a monster in contrast with the pure innocence of [A.D.],” his brief argues.

The Cuyahoga County Prosecutor’s Office counters that, despite Whitaker’s admission of guilt, it had the burden to prove every element of the charges beyond a reasonable doubt. Evidence related to the facts associated with the alleged offenses is presented during the guilt phase, the prosecutor maintains.

The office views Whitaker’s arguments as ironic given that he also makes separate claims that the state failed to meet its burden of proof on at least two of the offenses.

State’s Right to Subject Defendant to Psychological Assessment
Whitaker’s brief explains that his defense explored his background and psychology to gather mitigating evidence for the penalty phase of the trial to try to secure a punishment less than death. Whitaker lost his mother at an early age, witnessed domestic violence against his sister when he was young, and had no positive male role models in his life. The psychologist who conducted the defense’s evaluation found that Whitaker failed to control his behavior on the day of A.D.’s murder due to cocaine intoxication and a developed coping mechanism of dissociation, the brief states.

The prosecutor’s office requested a psychological evaluation by an expert of its choosing. Whitaker argues this evaluation, which the trial court allowed, was improper. Forcing a defendant to assist the state in gathering evidence that will be used against the defendant during the penalty phase is contrary to law and violates the state and federal constitutions, including the right against self-incrimination, Whitaker contends. 

He maintains that he didn’t use a psychiatric diagnosis as a defense during his trial. Based on precedent from the U.S. Supreme Court and Ohio Supreme Court, his right to remain silent and to not be subject to a forced evaluation by the state can be sacrificed only if he made his mental health an issue during the guilt phase of the trial, which he didn’t, Whitaker argues.

The prosecutor maintains that the Ohio Supreme Court’s 2020 ruling in State v. Madison already addressed this issue. The office argues that the defense psychologist’s findings about Whitaker made his mental state an issue. When the defense offers psychiatric evidence that places the defendant’s mental state at issue, the defendant may be compelled to submit to an evaluation by the state, the office asserts. It sees no distinction between the guilt and penalty phases on this claim.

The office maintains that the constitutional safeguards against self-incrimination don’t benefit those who decide to become witnesses on their own behalf. The office concludes that the state is entitled to conduct its own evaluation to rebut the evidence presented by the defendant’s mental-health expert.

Evidence to Support Burglary Conviction
Whitaker challenges his conviction for aggravated burglary – an offense that requires trespassing in an occupied structure. Whitaker argues no evidence showed that the house where the crimes occurred was an occupied structure, as defined in state law. He contends that McKenzie’s house wasn’t maintained as a permanent or temporary dwelling even if temporarily unoccupied, no one was present or likely to be present, and the house wasn’t otherwise an occupied structure. The intent of the aggravated burglary law turns on the risk to a potential occupant when someone enters a place where a person may be present, and that wasn’t the circumstance in his case, Whitaker maintains.

He asserts that his aggravated burglary conviction can’t stand, nor can the conviction on the aggravated murder charge that was based on him committing or attempting to commit aggravated burglary. Any specifications that included aggravated burglary must be overturned, too, he argues.

The prosecutor disagrees, relying on the Court’s decision last year in State v. Fazenbaker, which involved a trailer that was broken into while in storage for the winter. The Court ruled that winterizing the trailer didn’t change its purpose of providing a temporary dwelling and that it was a structure capable of being occupied, prosecutor states. The nature of the building’s use, not the length of a temporary absence, is the key point, the prosecutor maintains.

Kathleen Maloney

Docket entries, memoranda, briefs (including amicus briefs), and other information about this case may be accessed through the case docket.

Representing Christopher L. Whitaker: Jeffrey Gamso, 419.340.4600

Representing the State of Ohio from the Cuyahoga County Prosecutor’s Office: Katherine Mullin, 216.698.6454

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Did Flawed Division of Oil and Gas Rights Survive When Other Mineral Claims Expired?

Senterra Ltd. v. Alan T. Winland et al., Case No. 2020-0197
Seventh District Court of Appeals (Belmont County)


  • Does Ohio follow the “Duhig Rule,” which would declare a deed void because a property owner attempted to grant more rights to the property than the owner possessed?
  • Under the Ohio Marketable Title Act, can extinguished reservations of oil and gas rights allow for other oil and gas rights to take effect?

Senterra Ltd. owns 141 acres in Belmont County. In the company’s chain-of-title to the surface property are five older documents that severed the oil and gas rights from the surface property. The older documents were created between 1925 and 1954.

In 2018, Senterra filed a complaint in Belmont County Common Pleas Court to extinguish all of the old mineral rights. Several individuals claiming to be the descendants of the original oil and gas rights owners objected. The trial court sided with Senterra, and the descendants appealed to the Seventh District Court of Appeals. The Seventh District invalidated four of the five reservations of mineral rights, but ruled that by applying the Ohio Marketable Title Act, the fifth reservation survived.

Senterra appealed the decision to the Supreme Court, which agreed to hear the case.

Interest Created by Three Property Splits
The fifth reservation was created after three splits of the property’s mineral rights. In 1925, Lulu and James Winland and Alta and William Dermot owned the land. In a deed, they sold the surface rights and retained a one-fourth interest in the oil and gas below. The surface property and remaining six-eighths of the oil and gas rights were eventually sold to Joseph and George Russell.

In 1954, George Russell transferred the land, and stated in the deed he was granting three-quarters of the oil and gas rights while reserving one-fourth of the oil and gas. At the time, George Russell only owned three-eighths of the oil and gas rights.

Texas Rule Extinguished Mineral Rights, Company Maintains
Senterra argues the claim by the descendants, labeled the Winland parties, was extinguished under a well-known rule used to interpret oil and gas contracts. The “Duhig Rule” originated from a Texas lawsuit, and Senterra argues it has been widely adopted by oil-and-gas producing states. While Ohio has not formally recognized the Duhig Rule, Senterra asserts the Seventh District and other Ohio courts have applied the rule in other oil and gas cases.

Under Duhig, when a grant of an oil and gas interest and reservation of an interest cannot both be implemented, the reservation of rights must fail. George Russell couldn’t legally grant the new owners three-quarters of the oil and gas rights and reserve one-quarter for himself because he didn’t own 100 percent of the rights, Senterra notes. Under Duhig, Russell’s reservation can’t be implemented, and the contract was void ab initio, the company maintains.

The Seventh District determined that the other interests created by the other four reservations expired at the time Senterra sought to claim full ownership of the mineral rights. Because Senterra was able to claim three-quarters, then Russell’s one-quarter reservation wasn’t extinguished by Duhig, the appellate court decided. Senterra argues a court cannot used the Marketable Title Act to extinguish some interests and revive others. The fifth reservation was void the day Russell attempted to create it in 1954 and cannot be revived, the company asserts.

Rules Doesn’t Apply, Heirs Argue
The Winland parties argue Duhig doesn’t apply to the Belmont County land dispute. The heirs explain the rule applies when the mineral rights owner attempts to grant and reserve the same fractional interest in the land. George Russell only attempted to reserve one-quarter of his three-eighths interest, they note.

The Winlands explains the Duhig rule is not a contract interpretation rule, but a “rule of equity” to produce fairness to a landowner that is unable to secure the purchased rights. For Duhig to apply, there needed to be competing interests to the mineral rights at the time the claim was made, the Winland parties maintain, and Russell would have had to hold an interest that could “remedy the breach.” Because Russell reserved less than he owned, his one-quarter interest wouldn’t provide a three-quarter interest to Senterra. Those interests were owned by the Winland-Dermot successors and the Joseph Russell successors, and not in George Russell’s control; however, the successors’ rights no longer exist, the heirs note.

The Winland parties state the Duhig Rule hasn’t been applied in a case where the competing interests for the mineral rights had been wiped away. Because the Seventh District, applying the Marketable Title Act, extinguished the other four reservations, the other three-quarter interest not reserved by Russell was available to Senterra, they note. It wouldn’t be equitable to extinguish the fifth reservation because it misstated the ownership rights in 1954 if, at this time, the surface owner can acquire a three-quarters ownership of the mineral rights, the Winland parties conclude.

Dan Trevas

Docket entries, memoranda, briefs (including amicus briefs), and other information about this case may be accessed through the case docket.

Representing Alan T. Winland et al.: Thomas White, 330.231.1195

Representing Senterra Ltd: Matthew Onest, 330.497.0700

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How Closely Must Courts’ Sentencing Language Adhere to Statute’s Wording?

State of Ohio v. Tyrone Leegrand II, Case No. 2020-0726
Eighth District Court of Appeals (Cuyahoga County)

ISSUE: Must the sentence imposed by a court precisely track the language in the relevant statute?

In the early morning hours of June 11, 2015, Michael Prock was delivering a pizza to a Cleveland location. As Prock drove away, someone shot at his vehicle, killing him.

Tyrone Leegrand was indicted in December 2017 on 10 counts related to the murder. He pled not guilty. Following a bench trial on one count and a jury trial on the other nine, Leegrand was found guilty of murder, felonious assault, carrying a concealed weapon, tampering with evidence, and illegally have a weapon.

The Cuyahoga County Common Pleas Court imposed a sentence of “life in prison with possibility of parole after 15 years” on the murder count plus a three-year mandatory prison term for a gun specification. The court imposed varying sentences on the other counts to run concurrently with the murder sentence – for a total of 18 years to life in prison.

Leegrand appealed his convictions and sentence to the Eighth District Court of Appeals. The appellate court upheld his convictions but overturned the murder sentence, pointing out that state law required an “indefinite term of fifteen years to life.” The Eighth District remanded the case to the trial court for resentencing.

The Cuyahoga County Prosecutor’s Office appealed to the Ohio Supreme Court, which accepted the case.

Court’s Sentence Same as Statute’s Meaning, State Argues
The sentence mandated for murder in R.C. 2929.02(B)(1) is “an indefinite term of fifteen years to life.” The Cuyahoga County prosecutor maintains that the trial court’s imposition of “life in prison with possibility of parole after 15 years” is the same because Leegrand received a maximum life sentence and would be eligible for parole after 15 years. While the language wasn’t the exact language from the statute, “the practical effect” of the court’s sentence aligns with the legislature’s intent to give parole eligibility after 15 years to an offender serving life in prison, the office’s brief argues.

The prosecutor notes that one meaning of “indefinite sentence” is a maximum prison term that the parole board can reduce, if authorized, after the offender has served the minimum time required by law. Both the statute’s language and the trial court’s sentence in Leegrand’s case are indefinite, with a maximum life term and the possibility of parole after 15 years, the prosecutor maintains. 

The prosecutor concludes that Leegrand’s sentence wasn’t contrary to law, adding: “Requiring trial courts to hold resentencing hearings for the sole purpose of imposing the exact same sentence using different wording is a waste of local and judicial resources.” The office asks the Court to clarify that if an imposed sentence reflects the legislature’s intent, “a word-for-word recitation of the statutory language is not required.”

Law Required Indefinite Sentence, Offender Maintains
Leegrand contends that trial courts don’t have to use the exact words from the statute, but they must make the same distinctions that the General Assembly has made in the state’s laws. He notes, for example, that the sentence for aggravated murder is life imprisonment with either no parole or parole eligibility after serving a certain number of years – which his brief calls “life-minus.” But for murder, the law imposes an indefinite prison term – setting a minimum number of years and a maximum of life, the brief states.

“[T]he General Assembly defines the punishment for aggravated murder as that of a single sentence (‘life’) that can be meted out in such a manner as to allow for parole, and defines the punishment for murder as simply being an ‘indefinite sentence’ with a possibility of remaining in prison for life,” according to the brief.

Leegrand disputes the state’s allegation that resentencing is a waste of resources, countering that administrative inconveniences don’t justify departing from a statute’s clear text – citing U.S. Supreme Court decisions. This case is about whether the court’s sentence of “life with parole eligibility after fifteen years” and the statute’s “fifteen years to life” term makes a difference to the General Assembly, he maintains. The legislature chose different words to impose different sentences, and the Court should give meaning to the distinctions, he argues.

Kathleen Maloney

Docket entries, memoranda, briefs (including amicus briefs), and other information about this case may be accessed through the case docket.

Representing the State of Ohio from the Cuyahoga County Prosecutor’s Office: Frank Zeleznikar, 216.698.2726

Representing Tyrone Leegrand II from the Ohio Public Defender’s Office: Stephen Hardwick, 614.466.5394

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