No death penalty for George Wagner IV if convicted of Pike County massacre

George Wagner IV, takes the stand in his,Wednesday Nov. 16, 2022 in Pike County Common Pleas...
George Wagner IV, takes the stand in his,Wednesday Nov. 16, 2022 in Pike County Common Pleas Court in Waverly, Ohio. His attorney, John P. Parker, started the questioning with Wagner’s upbringing. Judge Randy Deering presides. Eight members of the Rhoden family were found shot to death at four different locations on April 21-22, 2016. Wagner’s brother Jake Wagner and mom, Angela Wagner, have already pleaded guilty. George’s dad, George “Billy” Wagner III will go on trial in 2023. (Liz Dufour | Liz Dufour/Cincinnati Enquirer)
Published: Nov. 22, 2022 at 8:52 AM EST|Updated: Nov. 22, 2022 at 10:52 AM EST
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WAVERLY, Ohio (WXIX) - George Wagner IV no longer faces the death penalty if he is convicted of aggravated murder charges in the 2016 Pike County massacre.

Judge Randy Deering dropped the death penalty possibility Tuesday morning at the request of Special Prosecutor Angela Canepa.

Wagner IV, 31, and his family: mother, Angela Wagner, 52; father Billy Wagner, 51 and brother Jake Wagner, 28, were all indicted on capital murder charges in the shooting deaths of eight members of the Rhoden and Gilley families.

Two of the Wagners, Jake and Angela, pleaded guilty last year to their roles in the slayings and testified for the state against George as part of their plea deal.

The state has the discretion to ask the judge to lift the death penalty specifications for the family members.

Jake Wagner and Angela Wagner’s testimonies did prove there is enough evidence to find George Wagner guilty, Canepa told the judge Tuesday.

George is the first one to be tried for the massacre. He has pleaded not guilty and his attorneys contend he was not even there on the night of the slayings.

In other court developments Tuesday, the judge said he expects jury instructions to be finalized.

The state and defense rested on Friday after more than two months of testimony.

Now, the jury is off this week ahead of the Thanksgiving Day holiday while the state and defense resolve differences over evidence, jury instructions and more.

Judge Deering said there are about 150 pages of instructions to give to the jury once they hear the closings arguments, which are expected Nov. 28, from the attorneys.

Removing the death penalty is another order of business that was required before closing arguments.

Ohio juries must be sequestered if they deliberate a case that has the potential to end with the defendant being put on Death Row.

On Monday, the defense lost their request for George’s acquittal for lack of evidence. Judge Deering soundly rejected it in a decision that does not come as a surprise.

The judge already denied one defense attempt last year to throw out the murder charges.

Canepa has repeatedly argued that George “certainly is complicit” in the execution-style killings, most at close range and some while the victims were sleeping even though he didn’t actually shoot anyone.

The state contends he is eligible for aggravated murder convictions because he actively participated in planning out and covering up the killings. George’s mother and brother’s testimony backed that up.

Jake confessed in April 2021 and pleaded guilty. Canepa said he also led investigators to the weapons and vehicles used in the killings.

Authorities have said the motive of the slayings stemmed in part from a custody dispute over a young daughter Jake and one of the victims he killed, Hanna Rhoden, 19, had together.

When Jake took the stand against his brother for four days last month, he calmly told the jury in graphic detail how he personally shot and killed five of the victims - including the mother of his child - and shot and wounded a sixth.

He implicated his father in the murders of Chris Rhoden Sr., Gary Rhoden and Kenneth Rhoden.

Angela Wagner confirmed on the stand that, even though she didn’t shoot a single person and wasn’t with her sons and husband at the murder scenes, she was still responsible.

She responded “Yes,” when Canepa asked her if she was “guilty of the murders.”

In a surprise move last week, George took the stand in his own defense. He insisted he is not guilty of any of the killings.

George testified his family never approached him about the murder plot and he was asleep the night of the slayings.

Had he known, he claimed he would have stopped them.

“I don’t know how, but I would have never let it happen,” he told the jury.

Under cross-examination, George testified his mother and brother both lied during their testimony and their 2021 confessions to prosecutors.

Proposed jury instructions filed Monday by George’s attorneys elaborate further on that with respect to Jake Wagner’s testimony.

Jake testified he shot one of the victims, Hannah “Hazel” Gilley, in the eye, the court records state.

“Jake’s testimony was corroborated by the coroner’s report concerning the gunshot to Gilley. The coroner testified that Kenneth Rhoden was also shot in the eye. However, Jake denied shooting Kenneth.

“In addition, Jake testified he shot Frankie Rhoden, Hanna Rhoden, Dana Rhoden and Christopher Rhoden Jr.,” the filing continues. “The coroner’s lab report corroborates Jake’s testimony that he shot all of those individuals in the head. The coroner testified that Chris Rhoden Sr. and Gary Rhoden suffered identical headshot wounds, however, Jake denied shooting Chris and Gary.

“The identity of the killer of Chris Sr., Gary and Kenneth is all in dispute,” the defense maintains in the proposed jury instructions. “Jake’s method of killing the others is so similar it establishes his modus operandi of execution.”

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