WAVERLY, Ohio (AP) — A man charged with the 2016 murder of eight family members in southern Ohio will not face the death penalty if convicted.
Closing arguments are scheduled for next week in the Pike County trial of 31-year-old George Wagner IV. He was arrested along with three of his relatives more than two years after seven members of the Rhoden family and the fiancée of one were shot dead in several different locations in August 2016.
Prosecutors agreed in September not to seek the death penalty against Wagner and his father, who will face trial later, as part of an agreement with the two other family members who have agreed to testify. Special Prosecutor Angela Canepa on Tuesday called for the death penalty specifications to be thrown out, saying the action was “not a merit-based decision.”
Jurors will be notified of the decision before the start of oral arguments on Monday and Tuesday. The prosecution and defense closed their case on Friday. Wagner is not charged with shooting anyone, but allegedly planned, executed and covered up the killings, which authorities say stemmed from a custody dispute.
Canepa alleged that Wagner was with his brother and father when they went to the locations where the victims were killed, went inside with the couple, and helped his brother move two of the bodies.
Wagner, however, testified that he slept at his house the night of the murders. He said he learned the Rhodens had died through television reports, calling the news “heartbreaking”. In cross-examination, Canepa attacked his credibility, citing inconsistencies between his testimony and his 2017 statements to authorities.
His younger brother, Edward “Jake” Wagner, testified in a settlement that spared him the death penalty. He said he killed five of the eight victims and implicated their father in the other three murders. He said he felt he had no choice but to kill his baby girl’s mother because he feared for the girl’s safety.
Angela Wagner, Jake and George’s mother, previously pleaded guilty to helping plan the murders, but blamed the massacre on her husband, George “Billy” Wagner III. She said he believed the other family would seek revenge for the woman’s death and kill Jake “if not all of us”, so the rest of his family “must be murdered”.
George Wagner III has pleaded not guilty and is unlikely to stand trial until next year.
Those killed were Christopher Rhoden Sr., 40; Dana Rhoden, 37, his ex-wife; their three children, Clarence “Frankie” Rhoden, 20, Christopher Roden Jr., 16, and Hanna Rhoden, 19, mother of Jake Wagner’s daughter; Hannah Gilley, 20, fiancée of Clarence Rhoden; Kenneth Rhoden, 44, brother of Christopher Rhoden Sr.; and Gary Rhoden, 38, a cousin.