Putnam County Prosecutor Gary Lammers presents before the Ohio Supreme Court
Addressing justices of the Ohio Supreme Court, Putnam County Prosecutor Gary Lammers presents the State's challenge of a lower court's double jeopardy decision in the Travis Soto case. (Photo courtesy of the Ohio Channel)

COLUMBUS — Last Wednesday, Putnam County Prosecutor Gary Lammers appeared before the justices of the Ohio Supreme Court in an effort to appeal a lower court’s decision in the case of State of Ohio v. Travis Soto.

In 2006, as part of a plea deal, Soto pleaded guilty to a charge of child endangerment and served a sentence of five years for his role in the death of his son, Julio Soto-Baldazo. In 2016, five years after serving his sentence, Soto, in what has been described as “a crisis of conscience”, voluntarily entered the Putnam County Sheriff’s Office and confessed to a more direct role in his son’s death. A grand jury returned a multi-count indictment, including charges of aggravated murder and murder.

Citing double jeopardy, those two charges were unsuccessfully challenged by the defense in Putnam County Common Pleas court, then again in Ohio’s 3rd District Court of Appeals, where justices overturned Judge Randall Basinger’s ruling and upheld Soto’s appeal. Those actions set the stage for Wednesday’s proceeding.

Addressing the court, Lammers asserted a trio of challenges to the 3rd District ruling. Included in among them, the premise that the dismissal of an initial involuntary manslaughter charge, and the inherent lack of prosecution, allows renders double joepardy protections null and void in this case.

“Is there any case in Ohio that has found jeopardy attaches simply because a charge is filed?” Justice Patrick DeWine asked.

Lammers, in his response, expressed his legal opinion that, no, no such case exists.

Lammers additionally argued Soto’s knowledge of his own deceit when first confronted with charges rendered any contractual agreement with the State — the plea deal reducing an initial charge of involuntary manslaughter to child endangerment — null and void.

When first arrested, Soto, according to Lammers, provided two conflicting accounts of how the child died, both of which involved an ATV. However, subsequently in 2016, in a third version, Lammers intimated Soto had killed his son indoors, then staged an ATV accident, going so far as to sprinkle the child’s clothing with water in an effort to support the ruse.

Justice Michael P. Donnelly took particular note of Soto’s multiple versions of events, and questioned the State’s ability to determine if any of the accounts were sincere.

“There was reason to give investigators questions about his credibility,” Donnelly said. “When the government goes ahead after the investigators have done their job and presents to the grand jury charges...and the defendant enters a pleas of not guilty, doesn’t the judge who’s assigned to resolve that dispute have the right to interpret that as, ‘We are accusing you and we are prepared to prove the truth of these charges beyond a reasonable doubt’?”

“Someone who stands accused the right to believe that’s going to be our burden and that’s going to be our goal in that circumstance,” Lammers conceded

“Why does double jeopardy not apply to this situation?” Donnelly continued.

“We believe, under those circumstances, if he’s going to hide behind his contracted, negotiated plea, the rule of law is he has to have a resonable belief that will end all of the prosecution both current and potential,” Lammers responded.

A final determination in the case is expected within 90 days.

The proceeding in its entirety can be viewed at http://www.ohiochannel.org/video/case-no-2018-0416-state-v-soto