By Brett Milam
Steven Mages, the man accused of killing his girlfriend and unborn child in Goshen Twp., appeared in court on Nov. 29.
Mages’ defense scored something of a win from Clermont County Common Pleas Judge Victor Haddad, who ruled that the court would pay for a mitigation expert on behalf of the defense.
On Aug. 30, Mages, who is 38, allegedly killed his 35-year-old girlfriend Natasha Marie Wilson. He faces three counts of aggravated murder, all of which include the death penalty specification.
That fact, that it’s a capital case, is something Gregory W. Meyers, one of the defense attorneys for Mages, used as a selling point at the hearing on Nov. 29: he’s the one in the courtroom with capital case experience, not Assistant Prosecuting Attorney Scott O’Reilly and not even the judge himself.
“I want to respectfully argue this because I understand as fate would have it, I’ve litigated by default and part by design an awful lot of capital trial cases and that’s not the case for other lawyers in the room,” he said.
Stephen Haynes, the director of the public defender’s office in Clermont County since 2015, is also defending Mages.
A mitigation expert acts as the criminal defense team’s researcher and investigator.
O’Reilly argued to Haddad that he saw no statutory precedent for the court paying for the defense’s mitigation expert.
Meyers saw it differently, however.
To Meyers, it’s fundamental in capital cases to get a mitigation expert whose skillset differs from a criminal investigator.
State council has “most of the aces” right now, Meyers said, so their duty as the defense is “effective investigation preparation for litigation,” which entails that expert.
O’Reilly, holding up a large stack of papers up to the judge, called what the defense had provided a “large tome.”
“What it’s lacking is any actual precedent. This is literally propaganda of what a mitigation expert is,” O’Reilly said.
A curricula vitae, otherwise known as a resume, has yet to be provided, O’Reilly added.
O’Reilly said there’s just no precedent for taxpayers or the state to fund the mitigation expert.
“I don’t know what that is,” O’Reilly said. “They have yet to cite what kind of expertise this individual is going to have.”
In essence, O’Reilly sees the defense as asking for a “blank check” from the state.
Haddad then turned to Meyers and asked him to define what a mitigation expert is.
“This is transparently not a request for a blank check,” Meyers said.
A mitigation specialist, as Meyers calls it, said that role requires “soft tissue-type skills.”
“When we have a mitigation specialist whose training is designed to equip them with the human talent, skills and judgment necessary to uncover and unveil the depths of the background of our client in ways that criminal investigators do not,” he said. “It has more to do with a social worker approach.”
It’s about sitting in the room of a client’s family and uncovering those skeletons in the closet, Meyers said, which isn’t the skillset of a seasoned criminal investigator.
“It’s an entirely different orientation,” Meyers said.
Meyers added that it’s “reasonably necessary” for the defense to be funded by the court in regards to a litigation investigation.
“Likewise, this is a capital case. They’ve put Mr. Mages life on the line. We are entitled to a thorough investigation,” he said.
Meyers said this is particularly necessary for a client like his with a history of mental illness.
The mitigation expert will be Paul Burke, who is listed under the trial services division of Ohio Public Defender’s office.
Burke has experience with death penalty cases, Meyers said.
The court has also decided that Mages is indigent (meaning, he’s poor), which plays into Haddad’s decision to rule in the defense’s favor in allowing the court to pay for this specialist.
“I will agree with the state that I don’t know exactly what Mr. Burke does because I’ve never done of these before and I know you haven’t either [speaking to O’Reilly], but…I will assume, as an officer of the court, that if you say he has some history and experience and training in these types of cases, I’m going to take your word for it,” Haddad said to Meyers. “Death is different.”
It’s super due process, Haddad said.
Burke will be paid at $35 an hour. For now, Haddad has approved a $3,500 ceiling for Burke’s services.
“I realize the state is concerned about the taxpayers, but I think anybody that knows me there’s nobody tighter than me about doling out money for anybody,” Haddad said.
The next hearing is scheduled before Haddad on Dec. 21 at 1 p.m in Court Room 201.