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Death Penalty Affirmed for Cleveland Man Who Killed Teen on Her Way to School

Chistopher Whitaker (Courtesy: Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction)

Christopher Whitaker (Courtesy: Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction)

The Supreme Court of Ohio today affirmed the death sentence of a Cleveland man who abducted and murdered a 14-year-old girl on her way to school.

The Supreme Court unanimously upheld two of three capital convictions of Christopher Whitaker based on the 2017 rape and kidnapping of the girl prior to killing her. The Court dismissed Whitaker’s conviction and death sentence based on aggravated burglary.

The Court was divided 6-1 on one aspect of Whitaker’s appeal, concerning the jury's inability to hear his offer to plead guilty in exchange for a sentence to life in prison without the possibility of parole.

Writing for the Court majority, Justice Patrick F. Fischer explained that Whitaker forcibly entered a vacant house with the victim, identified in court records as “A.D..,” and then raped, tortured, and murdered her with a power drill and other tools. Justice Fischer stated these “are horrific crimes” that support the imposition of the death penalty.

Chief Justice Maureen O’Connor and Justices Sharon L. Kennedy, R. Patrick DeWine, Michael P. Donnelly, and Melody Stewart joined Justice Fischer’s opinion.

In a concurring opinion, Justice Jennifer Brunner disagreed with the majority’s approval of the trial court's ruling to refuse allowing the jury to consider Whitaker’s offer to plead guilty as a mitigating factor. Justice Brunner wrote that while the jury should have been allowed to consider it, she agreed with the majority’s conclusion to affirm the death sentence.

 

Teen Abducted Near Bus Stop
In January 2017, A.D. was a seventh grade student at E Prep School in Cleveland. To get to school, she took two connecting public busses. As A.D. was awaiting the second bus, a witness saw an unknown man grab and take A.D. When A.D. failed to arrive home after school, her mother called the school and learned that she had never arrived.

A search for A.D. began and Regional Transit Authority video revealed a man, later identified as Whitaker, and A.D. walking across a vacant lot toward Fuller Avenue. Three days later, police found A.D.’s body inside a vacant Fuller Avenue home.

The police found several bloody work tools and a bloody boot print. DNA testing identified Whitaker as a suspect and police arrested him about a week after the murder. During an initial interview, Whitaker denied being in the area or knowing anything about the girl. When confronted with the DNA evidence, Whitaker eventually admitting to murdering her, claiming that it was an accident.

Friends Called from Jail to Create Alibi
Whitaker was charged with 10 felony counts, three of which carried death penalty specifications. He pleaded not guilty to all charges.

While awaiting trial, Whitaker made several monitored phone calls. During one call he asked a woman to tell authorities the two of them were together the night he was arrested, drinking, and getting high. He told another woman, “This is like pulling the rabbit out of the haystack.” He told her that she might have to testify that she and him were having sex at the Fuller Avenue home and that would explain why his DNA was discovered in the house.

At his trial, Whitaker stipulated to charges that were based on prior criminal convictions and the jury found him guilty of all remaining charges.

At a mitigation hearing , the jury recommended a death sentence and the trial judge imposed it. At the hearing, Whitaker stated that “from the beginning, I’ve accepted full responsibility for my actions,” and apologized to A.D.’s family and the community. He said he made a lot of phone calls while awaiting trial and “said things, a lot about things in order to protect my family’s feelings.”

Along with sentencing him to death, the trial court imposed a 48-year prison sentence for the non-capital felony convictions. Death penalty convictions receive an automatic appeal to the Supreme Court.

Supreme Court Considered Exclusion of Plea Offer
Among his arguments, Whitaker maintained the trial court should not have excluded evidence that he attempted to negotiate an agreement to plead guilty in exchange for a sentence of life without parole. Whitaker’s attorneys argued the offer to plead guilty was relevant mitigating evidence showing his acceptance of responsibility and genuine remorse. Whitaker’s lawyers asked the jury to consider a life sentence without parole instead of the death penalty.

The Cuyahoga County Prosecutor’s Office countered that an offer to plead guilty is not mitigating evidence because “it does not support any concept of remorse; it’s an offer to avoid a potential penalty,” the opinion stated.

Justice Fischer explained that in two prior Court decisions – State v. Dixon in 2004 and State v. Sowellin 2016 – the Court ruled that a defendant’s offer to plead guilty is not relevant to the issue of whether the defendant should be sentenced to death.

The opinion noted that in some other states, courts have ruled that an offer to plead guilty indicates some acceptance of responsibility and has some bearing on the defendant’s character. However, other courts have indicated that agreeing to plead guilty with the condition that the death penalty be excluded does not indicate remorse.

The Court concluded the trial court properly excluded evidence of the plea offer.

Plea Offer Should Have Been Revealed, Concurrence Maintained
In her concurring opinion, Justice Brunner wrote that, under R.C. 2929.04(B), jurors are supposed to consider several factors during the mitigation phase, including “[a]ny other factors that are relevant to the issue of whether the offender should be sentenced to death.” Whitaker’s offer can be viewed as making it more likely that he accepted responsibility for his crimes, she stated in the concurrence.

“Acceptance of responsibility is mitigating because it reflects positively on his ‘character,’ a factor the jury was required to consider under the main paragraph of R.C. 2929.04(B),” she wrote.

Justice Brunner concluded that the trial court should have considered the plea offer, but any error made by the trial court could be remedied through the Supreme Court’s independent evaluation of the death sentence. She agreed with the other justices that Whitaker’s sentence was appropriate, but wanted to clarify the importance of considering an offer to plead guilty in future death penalty cases.

Court Independently Considered Sentence
After rejecting Whitaker’s legal challenges, the Court independently evaluated the evidence and weighed the aggravating and mitigating evidence, including Whitaker’s expressions of remorse and responsibility. The opinion noted his claims were undermined by his calls to friends and family from jail.

The opinion noted a psychologist hired by Whitaker’s lawyers testified that many times defendants will accept responsibility with the legal system, but deny responsibility to friends and family to keep their support.

The Court indicated his statements were entitled to some weight and that all of his mitigating evidence provided “considerable weight.”

“That said, Whitaker raped and murdered 14-year-old A.D. in a vacant house. He then fled the scene and was arrested only after DNA evidence identified him as the perpetrator. Under these circumstances, we conclude the aggravating circumstances outweigh the mitigating factors beyond a reasonable doubt,” the Court concluded.

2019-1482. State v. Whitaker, Slip Opinion No. 2022-Ohio-2840.

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