Our Opinion: Ryan Styer for prosecutor

By The Times-Reporter, The Times-Reporter
Posted 10/19/2008

From the Devan Duniver murder case to a vicious advertising attack, we’ve found a number of reasons to give our endorsement to Ryan Styer in the race for Tuscarawas County prosecutor.

Styer, a Republican from Newcomerstown who is serving as the village solicitor and as a Carroll County assistant public defender, is challenging Democrat Amanda Spies, who has served as prosecutor for the last 12 years.

This has been a particularly trying year for Spies and at election time she finds herself in a perfect storm of controversy.

In January, the federal 6th Circuit Court of Appeals issued its opinion that Spies could indeed be sued for prosecutorial misconduct after it reviewed the circumstances surrounding the conviction of Anthony Harris, the subsequent appeals court decision that reversed the conviction, and her post-courtroom behavior.

In 2004 – four years after Harris’ conviction was overturned – Harris decided to enlist in the Marine Corps and revealed to recruiters that he had been convicted and that the conviction was later reversed. He signed a release allowing the Marines to access any and all documents relating to the case.

The court record stated: “When Marine Corps Staff Sgt. William Brahen went to the Spies’ office to request documents pertaining to Harris’ conviction and the reversal, Spies reacted by saying, in a hostile tone of voice, ‘Are you f------ kidding me?’”

Then she asked Brahen whether the Marines would actually take Harris. Brahen later called the commanding officer, Master Sgt. Mark Baker, and presumably handed the phone to Spies.

“Spies ... proceeded to inform Baker that Harris would always be a suspect in the murder of Devan Duniver because there were no other suspects,” the court related.

“She also mentioned that Harris had filed the instant civil suit against her. The Marine Corps subsequently declined to allow Harris to enlist. ...”

In its background summary on the case, the Circuit Court of Appeals noted that there were other “persons of interest” in the case (although the public was never told that), including a boyfriend of Devan’s mother who had previously kidnapped the child for three days and who had beat her with a belt. Apparently police ruled out all of the other “persons of interest,” focusing their investigation on Harris.

Ultimately, the insurance company representing Spies and Tuscarawas County paid $2.2 million to get her off the hook for violating Harris’ First Amendment rights, for defaming him and for “tortious-interference claims.”

Spies’ assistants also were taken to task for their handling of the trial of Marsha Mills, who has appealed her murder conviction which sent her to prison.

Mills was accused of causing the death of 2-year-old Noah Shoup of New Philadelphia. Mills, who was baby sitting, claimed the boy accidentally fell down the back porch stairs.

Judges William Hoffman and Julie Edwards of the 5th District Court of Appeals both expressed concern that Assistant Prosecutor Scott Mastin in his closing arguments noted that Mills didn’t take the stand in her own defense. Under the law, defendants have a constitutional right not to take the stand and their decision not to do so can’t be used against them – apparently unless the case is being tried in Tuscarawas County.

Although the court has not yet rendered a decision on Mills’ appeal, we also were appalled at the prosecution’s decision to show the Mills’ jury 53 gruesome photos of the child’s body after autopsy.

What did that trick prove?

It spoke not to the body of evidence but to the emotions of mothers, fathers, grandmothers and grandfathers sitting on that Mills jury.

Look at the photos. Look at the defendant. Render a verdict.

That’s justice? We don’t think so.

Interestingly, Spies said in a Times-Reporter interview that she is not involved in cases that her husband, Detective Mike Goodwin of the New Philadelphia Police Department, investigates. That is simply not true. A Reader’s Viewpoint indicated that she kept the Shoup family abreast during the Mills trial, at which Goodwin sat at the prosecutor’s table. Spies attended the trial a number of days.

To avoid any conflict, Spies should not handle cases Goodwin investigates, which presents another problem. Because the city of New Philadelphia is the largest community in the county, he’s likely to investigate a number of cases that will have to be prosecuted. Is the public best served by a prosecutor who frequently should recuse herself?

Then, it came to light last month that two boxes of evidence collected by a special, independent prosecutor and his investigator have been in Spies’ office for a year. The evidence was sealed by Judge Edward O’Farrell although he recently stated that the prosecutor could access it if she wanted.

The county paid roughly $26,000 for those two boxes of evidence, which no one has looked at. We find that fact to be incredible.

Finally, Spies’ political advertising raises questions as well. Last week (and continuing this week on radio) Spies has been critical of Styer for defending “child molesters, rapists, drug pushers and other violent felons at taxpayers’ expense.”

That’s his job. He’s a public defender. The Ohio State Bar Assn. has called other political candidates – attorneys – to task for similar unprofessional conduct.

On Tuesday, a panel determined there was probable cause for a complaint filed by Styer to be considered by the full Ohio Elections Commission. Styer said Spies’ ad was false because it states he has no prosecutorial experience.

In followup advertising, Spies claims she has an “excellent relationship with all county law enforcement offices, agencies and departments.” Members of the law enforcement community have told us privately (because of fear of retribution) that’s incorrect. Among their complaints is the tendency by the prosecutor to plea-bargain cases rather than to seek the strongest possible conviction and sentence. A Reader’s Viewpoint on Sunday chronicled one lament about lack of prosecution on behalf of another victim.

Styer said he would make a difference by making his staff available for law enforcement at all hours, revamping the philosophy of plea bargaining at the felony level and being more hands-on in the courtroom. And, yes, he said he’ll keep the best of Spies’ assistants. “I want to make sure cases get charged correctly,” he told The T-R.

So do we.

If ever there was a time for a changing of the guard in the Tuscarawas County prosecutor’s office, it is now. We urge voters to cast their ballots for Ryan Styer on Tuesday.