Luebrecht - Putnam Sentinel

OTTAWA — A Fort Jennings man was found guilty of aggravated murder in the death of his 14-month old son in 2005. After deliberating for just over six hours a Putnam County jury returned its verdict in the aggravated murder trial of Michael Luebrecht.

The material facts of the case were never in question. In the early afternoon of May 23, 2005, Luebrecht went to the home of his children’s babysitter, picked up his 14-month-old son, Joel, returned to the family’s Fort Jennings home, and drowned him in the bath. In the 911 call Luebrecht placed to the Putnam County Sheriff’s Office shortly after the murder, Luebrecht immediately confessed to the crime.

“My son. I drowned my son in the bath,” Luebrecht told Putnam County 911 Coordinator Brad Brubaker, who served as dispatcher on that day nearly 13 years ago. According to testimony presented by law enforcement personnel who were at the scene, Luebrecht reiterated his confession whenever questioned. When the case came to court in February of 2006, Luebrecht entered a plea of guilty to the charge, and received a sentence of 25 years to life.

Then, in November of 2016, Luebrecht, through his attorney, Danny Hill II, filed a motion to withdraw his plea, citing new evidence offering mitigating circumstances. The motion was granted by Putnam County Common Pleas Court Judge Randall Basinger on May 5, setting the stage for the four-day trial that began on Tuesday, Jan. 2 and concluded on Friday.

The heart of the trial revolved around the allowable defense of involuntary intoxication. Recognized in Ohio as a viable defense in crimes of intent, involuntary intoxication typically involves alcohol or illegal recreational drugs, such as LSD or cocaine, unwittingly consumed by a defendant. However, in the case of Luebrecht, who has a decades-long history of mental illness — specifically depression and Obsessive Compulsive Disorder — the defense maintained a slurry of antidepressants and antipsychotics, improperly administered by what Hill asserted were irresponsible doctors, resulted in the defendant’s action.

Both the prosecution and the defense focused on Luebrecht’s mental attitude, demeanor and affect at the time of the crime. Witnesses for both sides described Luebrecht as impassive, calm and emotionless. While the prosecution attributed that impassivity to Luebrecht’s OCD — a condition discounted as an insanity defense in this case — the defense maintained it was a consequence of medicine-induced psychosis. Witnesses for the prosecution included sheriff’s office deputies and emergency personnel dispatched to the scene. Witnesses for the defense included friends and family members, among whom was Luebrecht’s wife, Amy, who remains resolute in her defense of her husband.

Additionally, both sides offered expert witnesses in the field of psychiatry to present testimony. Dr. Peter Breggins, a psychiatrist who for decades has championed alternatives to psychopharmaceuticals, appeared for the defense, asserting Luebrecht’s medications, not his illness and not Leubrecht himself, responsible for the crime. Dr. Thomas Sherman and Dr. Doug Beech — forensic psychiatrists from Toledo and Worthington, respectively — appeared for the prosecution. Both men testified intoxication played no role in the murder, with Sherman deeming the notion “preposterous” and Beech asserting the OCD as the primary cause of Luebrecht’s action.

After the jury read the verdict, Luebrecht’s head sagged. Family and friends who attended the trial wept as they left, many professing their love for Luebrecht as they passed him by.

On Monday, Luebrecht returned to court for sentencing and to hear the court’s response to a Rule 29 motion filed by Hill just hours before the court convened. Under federal law, the defense may request that a presiding judge vacate a jury’s verdict and move for acquittal under Rule 29 of the Federal Rules of Criminal Procedure.

In his motion, Hill wrote, “There is a beautiful, ornate wooden carving mounted behind the judge’s bench in the Putnam County Common Pleas courtroom…The inscription on the carving reads simply, strikingly elegant in its simplicity, ‘JUSTICE TO ALL’. I truly, sincerely mean this to not disrespect the dutiful service the jurors gave as they heard Michael’s case, but after the jury verdict was announced by His Honor, and continuing this morning, I wonder where was the ‘JUSTICE TO MICHAEL LUEBRECHT’?”

The motion reiterated the evidence presented and the defense’s position that both the medical and legal system failed Luebrecht.

Before hearing victim impact statements and testimony from Luebrecht’s friends and family regarding sentencing, Judge Randall Basinger overruled the motion, setting the stage for a series of highly emotional pleas for leniency and appeals to reconsider acquittal. In total, six individuals — not including Luebrecht himself, who also spoke to the court — made impassioned appeals to Basinger. Among them was Luebrecht’s wife.

“I’m thankful for the right to address your honor today as one of the victims of this tragedy,” Amy Luebrecht told the court. “There are many victims left behind from the catastrophe of medical errors, not the least of whom is my husband, Mike Luebrecht. As victims we do not feel we were accorded a meaningful role in the criminal justice process.”

Luebrecht went on to describe the changes in her husband, both before the murder occurred and since his incarceration, presenting the court with family photographs of a smiling man engaged with his family in the years before the event, as well as a mug shot taken immediately after Luebrecht drowned his son; a photograph Luebrecht perceives as clear evidence of her husband’s confusion and altered mental state at the time of the act. Ultimately, she asked the court for an acquittal.

“If it’s not too late, I really ask you to set aside this (verdict),” Amy Luebrecht said. “I have no fear of him coming back into our home. We have an enormous amount of support in the town where we live. Daily, someone comes in and asks how we are doing, how’s our legal case and, since Friday, they’ve come in and said they are so sorry. I think if the people who would be living in the house with him aren’t afraid, and the people who would be living next door aren’t afraid, I mean, why are we doing this?”

For his part, Luebrecht assured the court he is a changed man.

“All my family’s here and they’ve been with me since day one, twelve-and-a half years,” Luebrecht said, addressing Basinger. “They’ve never said anything against me and treated me unconditionally, just like God does. There has been a very dramatic change in my mental health and in every part of my being: emotionally, spiritually, mentally and physically. I was switched to different medications and I’ve been stable on those meds for nine years now.”

A visibly emotional Hill then addressed the court.

“On behalf of Michael, I respectfully and most humbly request that your Honor reconsider the denial of this motion and use the words of your order in the granting of that motion and the power of this honorable court, the awesome power of this honorable court, to, as Dylan Thomas wrote in his haunting poem about his own father’s impending blindness, ‘fork down lightning’ from the bench. To the millions of people who are prescribed these powerful medications, their families and their communities, such as Putnam County and the State of Ohio, tell those people this is wrong.”

Although clearly moved by the testimonies presented, Basinger steadfastly overruled the motion.

“First of all, I agree we have much to learn about the complex nature and issues of mental health and mental illness, as well as treatment,” he said. “We also must seek to understand what are the, at times, impacting and devastating effects that mental health and mental illness can bring. The court is intent on following the law. As a result, I am once again overruling the request for reconsideration of the Rule 29 motion.”

Basinger then remarked that, in the 30 years he has served on the bench, “this is the only motion to withdraw a plea, post sentencing, that I have granted,” and asserted full confidence in the jury and their verdict.

He then advised Luebrecht and all present of a federally required life sentence on the charge, with opportunities for parole set at five year increments from 20 to 35 years. Luebrecht’s original sentence, imposed by Basinger in 2006, was 25 years to life.

“At the time of sentencing in 2006, I found that the mental illness — and I’m quoting from my entry at that date — ‘is not likely to change as the defendant has demonstrated a significant resistance to treatment and that the court cannot conclude that the defendant will not reoffend in light of his mental illness,’” Basinger said, adding, “I now conclude that the defendant’s mental health has stabilized to a degree as a result of advancements in treatment and medication and the threat of recidivism has somewhat lessened. As a result, I have decided to allow consideration by the parole board at an earlier date.”

Basinger then imposed a sentence of 20 years to life in prison, the least of the sentences allowable by law and a reduction of five years in the time Luebrecht could attain parole.

Outside the courtroom, Hill advised an appeal of the jury’s verdict and Basinger’s overruling of the Rule 29 motion remains a possibility.