The Ohio Supreme Court ruled 4-3 on Thursday to send a high-profile baby murder case back to Muskingum County court for a new sentencing hearing but ordered that it be handled by a different judge.
Emile Weaver delivered a newborn baby girl on April 22, 2015. The infant was found dead in a trashcan behind a sorority house at Muskingum University in New Concord. Weaver was convicted of aggravated murder, gross abuse of a corpse, and two counts of tampering with evidence for placing her newborn baby girl in a plastic trash bag, suffocating her.
The aggravated murder count carried a mandatory sentence of life in prison, though Weaver could have been eligible for parole in as early as 20 years. But Muskingum County Common Pleas Judge Mark Fleegle said at sentencing that he remained unconvinced that Weaver felt any true remorse.
Fleegle sentenced Weaver to life in prison without parole - the harshest sentence under Ohio law short of the death penalty.
In a similar case in the same town, on the same campus, on the same road, less than seven doors down, Jennifer Bryant was indicted on charges of involuntary manslaughter, child endangering and abuse of a corpse. She eventually pleaded guilty to all three counts. She faced up to 10 years in prison, but on June 2, 2003, then-Muskingum County Common Pleas Judge Howard Zwelling sentenced Bryant to three years in prison.
Bryant served just seven months before being granted early release.
In 2017, Weaver sought post-conviction relief, arguing that her lawyer failed to present a complete explanation of neonaticide during sentencing which could have led to a less severe punishment.
Fleegle, who gave Weaver life in prison without parole, also handled the post-conviction relief hearing. He discredited an expert witness who tried to explain Weaver's condition.
In the majority opinion, Chief Justice Maureen O'Connor said Fleegle demonstrated an arbitrary and unreasonable attitude toward the evidence of neonaticide and pregnancy-negation syndrome.
"Not only did the trial court misunderstand the evidence pertaining to neonaticide and pregnancy-negation syndrome, but it demonstrated a willful refusal to consider such evidence," O'Connor wrote.
In a dissenting opinion, Justice Pat DeWine said Weaver's lawyer at trial wasn't ineffective for failing to explain why she'd murder her newborn and noted that Weaver's defense at trial was that the baby died of natural causes.
Laura Bischoff is a reporter for the USA TODAY Network Ohio Bureau, which serves the Columbus Dispatch, Cincinnati Enquirer, Akron Beacon Journal and 18 other affiliated news organizations across Ohio.
This article originally appeared on The Columbus Dispatch: Ohio Supreme Court orders new trial, judge in baby murder case