Last Friday morning, reporters and cameras squeezed into the Hon. Robert S. Kraft Board Room at the Hamilton County Law Library to hear Judge Melba Marsh pronounce judgment in arguably the most unusual case in Hamilton County Courthouse history.
Judge Marsh’s resonant voice rang out as she declared:
“Let the record reflect the following:
Defendant has an open court with counsels present, waived his physical body presence today and submitted to the authority of the state of Ohio and thus at this time Mr. Samuel Little, by Skype, you have entered into the State of Ohio. You are currently in Hamilton County Ohio, in the city of Cincinnati, at the Hamilton County Courthouse. You are in a room in the Law Library, which is now a Court of Common Pleas Courtroom. In my presence, Judge Melba Marsh, Judge of the Common Pleas Court, General Division. Mr. Little, you are in my Courtroom as though you were physically standing in front of me.”
The Board Room at the Law Library has played host to trial proceedings before, but never a pleading in such a high-profile case as this. Samuel Little has admitted to murdering more than 90 people across 19 states over the span two decades, making him the most prolific serial killer in United States history. (WCPO) He appeared before Judge Marsh on August 23 to plead guilty to murdering two women in Cincinnati during the 1980s, Anna Stewart and an as-yet unidentified Jane Doe. Mr. Little is currently incarcerated in the California State Prison in Los Angeles County, California, serving three life sentences for murders in that state. Due to Mr. Little’s declining health, Hamilton County Prosecutor Joe Deters made the decision to invoke Ohio Criminal Rule 43 to allow Mr. Little to plead and be sentenced remotely using the videoconferencing equipment in the Law Library’s Board Room.
Ohio Criminal Rule 43 states:
(1) Except as provided in Rule 10 of these rules and division (A)(2) of this rule, the defendant must be physically present at every stage of the criminal proceeding and trial, including the impaneling of the jury, the return of the verdict, and the imposition of sentence, except as otherwise provided by these rules. In all prosecutions, the defendant’s voluntary absence after the trial has been commenced in the defendant’s presence shall not prevent continuing the trial to and including the verdict. A corporation may appear by counsel for all purposes.
(2) Notwithstanding the provisions of division (A)(1) of this rule, in misdemeanor cases or in felony cases where a waiver has been obtained in accordance with division (A)(3) of this rule, the court may permit the presence and participation of a defendant by remote contemporaneous video for any proceeding if all of the following apply:
(a) The court gives appropriate notice to all the parties;
(b) The video arrangements allow the defendant to hear and see the proceeding;
(c) The video arrangements allow the defendant to speak, and to be seen and heard by the court and all parties;
(d) The court makes provision to allow for private communication between the defendant and counsel. The court shall inform the defendant on the record how to, at any time, communicate privately with counsel. Counsel shall be afforded the opportunity to speak to defendant privately and in person. Counsel shall be permitted to appear with defendant at the remote location if requested.
(e) The proceeding may involve sworn testimony that is subject to cross examination, if counsel is present, participates and consents.
(3) The defendant may waive, in writing or on the record, the defendant’s right to be physically present under these rules with leave of court.
Judge Marsh enumerated each of these provisions for Mr. Little and determined that each had been met, placing him under the jurisdiction of the Hamilton County Court of Common Pleas as though he were physically standing in the Courtroom.
Appropriate notice was given to all parties;
Mr. Little could see and hear the proceeding;
The video screen and speakers allowed the court and all parties to see and hear Mr. Little;
Defense attorneys and attorneys from the Hamilton County Prosecutor’s Office were physically present in both Cincinnati and California, allowing for private communications between Mr. Little and his counsel;
The requirements were met and Judge Marsh, after being informed of the facts of the case by the prosecuting attorney in California, accepted Mr. Little’s guilty plea and handed down two sentences of 15 years to life, to run consecutively.
It is not uncommon for our government and other attorney subscribers to utilize our teleconferencing equipment for sworn testimony, hearings and other evidentiary matters. But this was the first trial of this magnitude to be conducted entirely via teleconference in the history of the Courthouse. As Judge Marsh said, that this trial should occur so close to the Courthouse Centennial is a fitting tribute to the progress of justice in this county and we were proud to be a part of it.