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Jury selection begins for death penalty case in murder of 8

Columbus, Ohio– The first trial in the case of eight members of a single Ohio family shot to death more than six years ago is about to begin after several delays related to the coronavirus pandemic and negotiations with other defendants.

Defendant George Wagner IV was charged in Pike County Court with the 2016 Rhoden family murders near Piketon in southern Ohio. Wagner, 30, faces the death penalty if he is convicted. Jury selection was expected to begin Monday at the Waverly County courthouse, about 65 miles (105 kilometers) south of Columbus, with opening statements next week.

Authorities say the shootings of seven adults and one teenager stemmed from a child custody dispute Jake Wagner had with one of the victims. Wagner’s parents and his brother, Jake Wagner, were also charged.

Jake Wagner pleaded guilty last year to the shootings, admitting to killing five of the victims. His statement was part of a deal with prosecutors that saved him from being sentenced to death. Wagner’s mother, Angela Wagner, also pleaded guilty to helping plan the murders.

John Parker, a lawyer representing George Wagner, has argued that Jake Wagner’s deal with prosecutors limits his ability to conduct a thorough cross-examination. Parker said Jake Wagner told prosecutors his brother didn’t shoot anyone.

Jake Wagner is not in a position to testify truthfully because he faces the death penalty if he does not strictly abide by the terms of his plea agreement, Parker said.

Special counsel Andrew Wilson has said there is nothing unusual about Jake Wagner’s plea deal, adding that his testimony will be bolstered by other evidence implicating George Wagner.

Jake and George’s father, George “Billy” Wagner III, has pleaded not guilty.

The fatal shootings at three trailers and a mobile home near Piketon in April 2016 stunned residents in a rural stretch of Ohio and sparked one of the state’s most extensive criminal investigations, leading to the arrest of the Wagners more than two years later.

The Wagners spent months planning the killings motivated by a custody dispute over the daughter Jake Wagner had with Hanna Rhoden, prosecutors say. They targeted some of the victims, but “sadly, some were killed because they were there,” special prosecutor Angela Canepa said.

Most of the victims were repeatedly shot in the head and some showed signs of bruising. Three young children at the scenes were uninjured.

The victims were Christopher Rhoden Sr., 40; his ex-wife, Dana Rhoden, 37; his three children, Clarence “Frankie” Rhoden, 20, Christopher Jr., 16, and Hanna, 19; Clarence Rhoden’s fiancee Hannah Gilley, 20; Christopher Rhoden Sr.’s brother, Kenneth Rhoden, 44; and a cousin, Gary Rhoden, 38.

The Wagners used weapons with homemade silencers, allowing them to kill their victims in their sleep, according to prosecutors.

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