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Court Affirms Death Sentence in Noble County Child Rape, Murder

2005-0192. State v. Mundt, 2007-Ohio-4836.
Noble C.P. No. CRI 204-2002CR. Judgment affirmed.
Moyer, C.J., Pfeifer, Lundberg Stratton, O'Connor, O'Donnell, Lanzinger and Cupp, JJ., concur.
Opinion: http://www.supremecourt.ohio.gov/rod/docs/pdf/0/2007/2007-Ohio-4836.pdf

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(Oct. 3, 2007) The Supreme Court of Ohio today unanimously affirmed the convictions and death sentence of Frederick Mundt for the kidnapping, rape and aggravated murder of 7-year-old Brittany Hendrickson, the daughter of Mundt's girlfriend, Misty Hendrickson, in March 2004.

Mundt had agreed to baby-sit for the child while her mother went with relatives to play bingo. Brittany's body was found in a shallow well near Mundt and Hendrickson's home in rural Noble County the day after Mundt reported that he had awakened from a nap to find her missing and had joined in an overnight volunteer search of the area. The well head where the body was found had been covered by a large rock and a sheet of tin. An autopsy of Brittany's body indicated that she had been sexually assaulted and suffered multiple blunt-force injuries to her head and torso, but had died from drowning – indicating that she had been thrown or placed in the well while still alive.

Based on Mundt's reaction when he was informed that Brittany had been killed, and other suspicious statements and behavior, police identified Mundt as a suspect and obtained his permission to search his house and car. After obtaining voluntary samples of his DNA and the clothing he wore on the day of the crime, and matching Mundt's genetic material to material found on Brittany's body and clothing, police arrested Mundt and charged him with rape, kidnapping and aggravated murder. He was convicted on all charges in a jury trial, and subsequently sentenced to death.

In today's 7-0 decision written by Justice Terrence O'Donnell, the Supreme Court rejected all 11 allegations of legal and procedural error by the trial court that were raised by Mundt's attorneys on appeal, and upheld his convictions and death sentence.

With regard to Mundt's claims that he did not receive effective assistance from his court-appointed trial attorneys, Justice O'Donnell noted that under the U.S. Supreme Court's 1984 decision in Strickland v. Washington, “To establish ineffective assistance, Mundt must show (1) deficient performance by counsel, i.e., performance falling below an objective standard of reasonable representation, and (2) prejudice, i.e., a reasonable probability that but for counsel's errors, the proceeding's result would have been different.”

Applying these criteria to various claimed errors by Mundt's defense counsel, including their failure to seek disqualification of several jury members, to object to various portions of the state's evidence and witness testimony and to introduce mitigation evidence about Mundt's low IQ and poor performance as a student, Justice O'Donnell held that in each instance the challenged actions or omissions of the trial attorneys were neither below professional standards nor prejudicial to the outcome of the case.

Justice O'Donnell noted that virtually all of the challenged actions and omissions fell within the category of “strategic decisions” that trial attorneys must make in determining whether calling a given witness or introducing a piece of evidence will enhance or damage a client's case and when raising objections to evidence or testimony offered by the opposing party is more likely to focus the attention of jurors on damaging information than to undercut its credibility. Quoting from the Strickland decision, he wrote: “(I)n evaluating the performance of counsel, ‘strategic choices made after thorough investigation of law and facts relevant to plausible options are virtually unchallengeable; and strategic choices made after less than complete investigation are reasonable precisely to the extent that reasonable professional judgments support the limitations on investigation.'”

Based on the Court's analysis of the alleged errors and omissions by defense counsel during each segment of his trial, Justice O'Donnell wrote: “After thorough review, we conclude that Mundt failed to demonstrate that his counsel rendered ineffective assistance during voir dire, during the guilt phase, or during the penalty phase of the trial.”

Among other assertions of error raised by Mundt as grounds to reverse his convictions or reduce his death sentence, the Court also found no merit Mundt's claims of prosecutorial misconduct, improper admission by the trial court of prejudicial “victim impact” evidence regarding the injuries inflicted on Brittany, alleged flaws in the instructions given to the jury and claims that Ohio's death penalty statute is unconstitutional.

Contacts
Robert B. Watson, 740.732.5685, for the State of Ohio and Noble County prosecutor's office.

Linda Prucha, 614.466.5394, for Frederick A. Mundt.