Travis Soto
Travis Soto

COLUMBUS — In a slip opinion issued late last week, justices on the Ohio Supreme Court announced they had overwhelmingly reversed a lower court’s decision barring the prosecution of Travis Soto on a charge of aggravated murder.

The case involving Soto, 33, is both horrifying and bizarre. In April of 2006, Soto was charged with involuntary manslaughter and child endangerment related to the death of his two-year-old son, Julio Baldazo. At the time, Soto asserted the child was killed in an ATV accident. With that information in hand, the State entered into a plea deal with the defendant, dropping the involuntary manslaughter charge in exchange for a guilty plea on the charge of child endangerment. After pleading guilty, Soto was sentenced to the maximum allowable penalty, a five-year prison stint which he served in full.

Then, in August of 2016, ten years following his sentencing and five years after his release from prison, Soto voluntarily approached officials at the Putnam County Sheriff’s Office and confessed to a more active and deliberate role in his child’s death. At the time, acting County Sheriff Tim Myer stated Soto came forward to “get right with God.”

The new information was presented to a Putnam County grand jury, which returned five new charges: aggravated murder, murder, felonious assault, kidnapping, and tampering with evidence.

In subsequent pretrial events, Soto’s defense asserted both primary charges — aggravated murder and murder — weren’t applicable, due to double jeopardy clauses protecting any individual from twice being charged with the same offense. The defense argued the initial charge of involuntary manslaughter precluded Soto’s prosecution on both murder charges, which are similar offenses. The defense presented its case to then Putnam County Common Pleas Court Judge Randall Basinger, who rejected the position. The defense then took its case to the 3rd District Court of Appeals, which overturned Basinger’s opinion, and asserted the double jeopardy clauses did apply, thereby protecting Soto from prosecution on both murder charges.

Then, on March 6 of this year, Putnam County Prosecutor Gary Lammers appealed the 3rd District’s decision to the Ohio Supreme Court, arguing the double jeopardy charges never attached, as Soto was never tried for involuntary manslaughter.

Nearly eight months later, the supreme court justices ultimately concurred, overruling the lower court’s decision five to one.

“By their plain terms, the Double Jeopardy Clauses apply only when someone would be ‘twice put in jeopardy.’ Because Soto was never put in jeopardy for the dismissed 2006 involuntary-manslaughter charge, the Double Jeopardy Clauses do not bar his subsequent prosecution for murder and aggravated murder … We reverse the court” of appeals’ judgment and remand to the trial court for further proceedings consistent with this opinion,” the court announced as part of its eight-page majority slip opinion released last Thursday (visit http://www.supremecourt.ohio.gov/rod/docs/pdf/0/2019/2019-Ohio-4430.pdf for a complete transcript, including a 12 page dissent by Justice Michael P. Donnelly).

“I was, kind of, not surprised,” Mr. Lammers said. “The opinion of the majority concurred simply that double jeopardy hadn’t attached yet. I’m just thankful we were able to prevail so we can continue to pursue justice for little Julio.”

Barring any further appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court, a pretrial in the case is expected within the month, with a full jury trail anticipated some time this spring.