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Court Affirms Convictions, Death Sentence in Galena Double Murder Case

2003-1325. State v. Hand, 2006-Ohio-18.
Delaware C.P. No. 02CRI-08-366. Judgment affirmed.
Moyer, C.J., Resnick, Pfeifer, Lundberg Stratton, Singer, O'Donnell and Lanzinger, JJ., concur.
Arlene Singer, J., of the Sixth Appellate District, sitting for O'Connor, J.
Opinion: http://www.supremecourt.ohio.gov/rod/docs/pdf/0/2006/2006-Ohio-18.pdf

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(Jan. 18, 2006) A unanimous Supreme Court of Ohio today affirmed the aggravated murder convictions and death sentence of Gerald R. Hand for the January 2002 shooting deaths of his fourth wife, Jill Hand, and Lonnie Welch, a longtime friend and former employee who was alleged at trial to be Hand's co-conspirator in the unsolved murders of his first two wives in 1976 and 1979. The Court's opinion was authored by Justice Evelyn Lundberg Stratton.

On the evening of Jan. 15, 2002, Hand made a 911 call telling police that an intruder at his Galena home had shot his wife and he had then shot the intruder in self-defense. When police arrived, they found Jill dead in the front hall from a single gunshot to the head, and Welch's body in the driveway of a neighbor, approximately 50 yards from the Hands' front door. Welch had been shot once in the face from close range, and had several bullet wounds in his back. A ski mask was found on the ground near Welch's body.

Hand told police that Welch, whom he said he did not recognize at the time, had broken into the house and killed Jill in the front hall. He said he had retrieved two guns he kept in an upstairs bedroom, shot Welch in a downstairs hallway and continued to fire at him as he chased the intruder out of the house and across the yard till Welch fell dead. Hand became a suspect when forensic evidence at the crime scene did not match his description of events, and investigators learned that Welch had been the best man in Hand's wedding and that Hand had severe financial problems but had borrowed to keep paying premiums on approximately $1 million in life insurance policies on his wife.

In subsequent interviews, relatives and a former jail cellmate of Welch's told police Welch had admitted to them that he had conspired with Hand in the murders of both Hand's first wife, Donna, in 1976 and his second wife, Lori, in 1979. Both women were killed in the basement of Hand's home in Columbus while Hand was in conspicuous public places in the company of multiple witnesses. In both cases the house was ransacked but there was no sign of forced entry. Neither Hand, who collected sizable insurance benefits in both cases, nor Welch was ever charged, and both crimes remained unsolved at the time of Jill's murder in 2002.

Based on this and other evidence, Hand was arrested and indicted for the aggravated murders of both Jill Hand and Welch. The indictments included death penalty specifications alleging that the killings were part of a single “course of conduct” in which Hand caused the deaths of two or more persons, and that Hand killed Welch to prevent him from disclosing Hand's involvement in the killings of his first two wives and in the planned murder of Jill.

At trial, the judge admitted testimony by several of Welch's family members and friends about Welch's statements to them admitting his own involvement and implicating Hand in the murders of Donna and Lori Hand. These and other prosecution witnesses were also permitted to testify about alleged recent conversations they had with Welch in which he said he had been offered a large sum of cash to kill “the boss's wife,” and indicated just before he and Jill Hand were killed that he was about to “take care of his business” and collect the money he had been promised. All of this testimony was admitted over objections by Hand's attorneys that it was inadmissible “hearsay,” i.e. testimony by a witness not about what that witness personally saw or heard the defendant do or say, but about what a third party who is not present in court told the witness about the defendant.

The jury also heard testimony by a jail cellmate of Hand's about statements in which Hand had allegedly admitted to the cellmate that his purpose in killing Welch was to eliminate the risk of discovery of his past crimes and to conceal Hand's role in the murder of Jill. In June 2003, a jury convicted Gerald Hand of the aggravated murders of his wife and Welch, and sentenced him to death.

In today's decision the Court rejected all 13 allegations of legal and procedural error by the trial court that Hand's attorneys had advanced as grounds to reverse his convictions or reduce his sentence.

Writing for the Court, Justice Stratton said the trial court applied the correct standard of proof and did not abuse its discretion when it allowed the prosecution to present hearsay testimony about Welch's statements to friends and family members. Justice Stratton cited several exceptions in Ohio 's rules of evidence that authorize trial courts to admit hearsay testimony notwithstanding the defendant's Sixth Amendment right to confront witnesses against him.

She agreed with the trial court's finding that the proffered hearsay testimony in this case was admissible under Evid.R. 804(B)(6), which specifically allows such evidence when a witness with first-hand knowledge of a crime is dead or otherwise unavailable to testify “‘if the unavailability of the witness is due to the wrongdoing of the (defendant) for the purpose of preventing the witness from attending or testifying.'” Noting that the trial court had conducted a pretrial evidentiary hearing to evaluate the state's proposed hearsay evidence, Justice Stratton wrote that “(t)he trial court's preliminary determination that Welch's statements were admissible included a finding that Hand killed Welch to eliminate him as a potential witness. Indeed, Hand admitted to Grimes [his cellmate] that he killed Welch to achieve that purpose (i.e. prevent him from being a witness …). Thus, Hand forfeited his right to confront Welch because his own misconduct caused Welch's unavailability.”

Justice Stratton noted that, under the facts of this case, hearsay testimony regarding Welch's statements was also admissible against Hand under exceptions in Evid.R. 804(B)(3) [statements against the quoted party's interest], Evid.R. 803(3) [statements of intent to take future action] and Evid.R. 801(D)(2)(e) [statements by a co-conspirator].

Among other defense arguments rejected by the Court, Justice Stratton wrote that portions of the prosecutor's closing statement to the jury citing Hand's illegal and unethical business practices and “other acts” not directly related to the January 2002 murders were permissible because Hand had testified in his own defense and the state was therefore entitled to raise questions about his reputation for truthfulness.

Marianne T. Hemmeter, 740.833.2690, for the State of Ohio and Delaware County prosecutor's office.

Pamela Prude-Smithers, 614.466.5394, for Gerald R. Hand.