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State v. Peters

Court of Appeals of Ohio, Third District, Van Wert

April 30, 2018

STATE OF OHIO, PLAINTIFF-APPELLEE,
v.
CHRISTOPHER M. PETERS, DEFENDANT-APPELLANT.

          Appeal from Van Wert County Common Pleas Court Trial Court No. CR-16-11-116

          Michael J. Short for Appellant

          Kelly J. Rauch for Appellee

          OPINION

          SHAW, J.

         {¶1} Defendant-appellant, Christopher Peters ("Peters"), brings this appeal from the October 23, 2017, judgment of the Van Wert County Common Pleas Court sentencing him to serve life in prison without parole after Peters was convicted by a jury of Aggravated Murder in violation of R.C. 2903.01(C), an unspecified felony, Felonious Assault in violation of R.C. 2903.11(A)(1), a second degree felony, and Endangering Children in violation of R.C. 2919.22(B)(1)/(E)(1)(d), a second degree felony. On appeal, Peters argues that his convictions were against the manifest weight of the evidence and that the trial court erred by failing to merge the Aggravated Murder conviction with the Felonious Assault conviction for purposes of sentencing.

         Relevant Facts and Procedural History

         {¶2} On November 28, 2016, Peters was indicted for Aggravated Murder in violation of R.C. 2903.01(C), an unspecified felony, Murder in violation of R.C. 2903.02(A), an unspecified felony, Felonious Assault in violation of R.C. 2903.11(A)(1), a felony of the second degree, and Endangering Children in violation of R.C. 2919.22(B)(1), a felony of the second degree. The Aggravated Murder charge carried a death penalty specification, but that specification was later dismissed.[1] The charge of Murder in violation of R.C. 2903.02(A) was also later dismissed. The charges essentially alleged that Peters beat 15-month old H.R. to death. H.R. was the son of Peters' girlfriend, Valarie Dean. Peters pled not guilty to the charges.

         {¶3} Peters' case proceeded to a jury trial, which was held September 18, 2017, to September 22, 2017. At trial, the State called 15 witnesses and introduced over 65 exhibits then rested its case. Amongst the evidence introduced was a coroner's report indicating that H.R. died of blunt force injuries to the chest and abdomen due to a beating. Evidence presented also indicated that Peters was taking care of H.R. while Valarie was at work during the time of the likely cause of death. Other circumstantial evidence was introduced, linking Peters to the crime, including a statement Peters made to another inmate saying he should just go to court and ask for the death penalty because he could not live with what he had done.

         {¶4} Peters called three witnesses on his own behalf and introduced a number of exhibits into evidence. His defense focused largely on H.R. having a "toxic" level of Benadryl in his system, which he contended caused H.R.'s death. He also pointed to Valarie Dean's failings as a mother, and her opportunity alone with H.R. wherein she could have caused H.R.'s death. Nevertheless, Peters argued that even if H.R. did die of a beating, there were no witnesses establishing that it was Peters who had done the beating and there was no direct evidence of his involvement.

         {¶5} After the evidence was presented, the jury was given instructions, which included requested instructions on the lesser-included offenses of Murder and Involuntary Manslaughter for the Aggravated Murder charge. However, the jury found Peters guilty of all three counts in the indictment: Aggravated Murder, Felonious Assault, and Endangering Children.

         {¶6} On October 23, 2017, Peters' case proceeded to sentencing. Peters was ordered to serve life in prison without parole on the Aggravated Murder conviction, 8 years in prison on the Felonious Assault conviction, and 8 years in prison on the Endangering Children conviction. The trial court found that none of the sentences merged and then ordered all of the prison terms to be served consecutively. A judgment entry memorializing Peters' sentence was filed October 23, 2017. It is from this judgment that Peters appeals, asserting the following assignments of error for our review.

         Assignment of Error No. 1 The convictions are against the manifest weight of the evidence.

         Assignment of Error No. 2 The trial court erred in failing to merge the aggravated murder and felonious assault charges for sentencing.

         First Assignment of Error

         {¶7} In Peters' first assignment of error he argues that his convictions were against the manifest weight of the evidence. Specifically, he contends that there was a period of time wherein Valarie Dean, H.R.'s mother, was alone with H.R. and that she could have beaten H.R. or administered a lethal dose of Benadryl to him. Peters argues that there were no witnesses testifying that he did anything to H.R. and that all evidence presented was circumstantial. Peters contends that the State's case did not amount to proof beyond a reasonable doubt.

         Standard of Review

         {¶8} In reviewing whether a defendant's conviction was against the manifest weight of the evidence, the appellate court sits as a "thirteenth juror" and examines the conflicting testimony. State v. Thompkins, 78 Ohio St.3d 380, 387 (1997). In doing so, this Court must review the entire record, weigh the evidence and all of the reasonable inferences, consider the credibility of witnesses, and determine whether in resolving conflicts in the evidence, the factfinder "clearly lost its way and created such a manifest miscarriage of justice that the conviction must be reversed and a new trial ordered." Thompkins at 387.

         {¶9} Courts have held that judgments should be reversed as against the manifest weight of the evidence " 'only in the exceptional case in which the evidence weighs heavily against the conviction.' " (Emphasis added.) Id. quoting State v. Martin, 20 Ohio App.3d 172, 175 (1983). Furthermore, "[t]o reverse a judgment of a trial court on the weight of the evidence, when the judgment results from a trial by jury, a unanimous concurrence of all three judges on the court of appeals panel reviewing the case is required." Thompkins at paragraph 4 of the syllabus; Ohio Constitution, Article IV, Section (B)(3).

         Relevant Statutes

         {¶10} In this case Peters was convicted of Aggravated Murder in violation of R.C. 2903.01(C), Felonious Assault in violation of R.C. 2903.11(A)(1) and Endangering Children in violation of R.C. 2919.22(B)(1). Aggravated Murder, in violation of R.C. 2903.01(C), reads, "No person shall purposely cause the death of another who is under thirteen years of age at the time of the commission of the offense."

         {¶11} Felonious Assault, in violation of R.C. 2903.11(A)(1), reads, "No person shall knowingly * * * [c]ause serious physical harm to another[.]"

         {¶12} Child Endangering in violation of R.C. 2919.22(B)(1) reads, "No person shall do any of the following to a child under eighteen years of age * * * (1) Abuse the child[.]"

         Evidence Presented at Trial

         {¶13} Testimony at trial established that Peters, his girlfriend Valarie Dean, and Valarie Dean's 15-month old child H.R. lived in an apartment at the Old Lincoln Inn in the city of Delphos, Van Wert County, Ohio. The residence was formerly a motel but had been converted to apartment units.

         {¶14} On November 14, 2016, Valarie left the residence at around 8:30 p.m. to go to her job at Whirlpool in Findlay, Ohio. Peters remained at the residence with the intention of caring for H.R., who had a cold. Peters was not otherwise employed at that time.

         {¶15} Valarie clocked in at work at 9:54 p.m., and she intended to return home after her shift. Peters had told Valarie that he had to help a friend, "George, " move materials in the morning near the end of her shift, so he was going to have to leave slightly before Valarie got home.[2] Thus the plan was to leave H.R. alone at the residence, but for a short time. ...


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