Making the case for jurisdiction
As the murder case of Monongalia County, W.Va., teenager Skylar Neese continues to make national news, public speculation regarding the appropriate location to try the case against one of the accused continues.
Charged with willfully, maliciously and intentionally causing the stabbing death of Neese are her best friends, Rachel Shoaf, 16, and Sheila Eddy, 17, both of Morgantown.
In exchange for a May 1 guilty plea from Shoaf in adult court, prosecutors and Shoaf’s defense counsel agreed West Virginia had jurisdiction of the case, even though authortities contend the murder took place in Greene County in the early hours of July 6, 2012.
On the face of the argument, it would seem that a trial would take place in the location where the murder occurred, unless it resulted from a kidnapping elsewhere. In that instance, historically, the case could be tried in either the state where the crime started or where it came to its conclusion.
In the case of Neese’s disappearance, law enforcement officials said she left willingly with her friends on the night of her murder. However, a little used legal term known as inveigling made the case for kidnapping, one of the charges Eddy is facing. On Friday, Eddy was indicted by a grand jury in Monongalia County on one count of kidnapping, one count of first-degree murder and one count of conspiracy to commit murder. First-degree murder carries an automatic sentence of life imprisonment in West Virginia.
According to authorities, Neese was inveigled, or lured by false representation or deceit, to join Shoaf and Eddy for a ride across the state border where they allegedly planned to kill her, and apparently that was enough for the state of West Virginia to maintain jurisdiction over Shoaf and Eddy.
The case has similarities to the murders of Franciscan University students Aaron Land, 20, and Brian Muha, 18, in May 1999. The two were abducted by strangers from Ohio and then taken to Washington County, where they were murdered. This was a precedent-setting case regarding where a crime began and where it ended.
The defendants in the case were initially tried, convicted and sentenced in Ohio, not Pennsylvania, where the murders took place. Four years later, the Supreme Court of Ohio overturned the convictions based on Ohio law at the time that required the trial to take place where the murder occurred, not where the crime began. It was another six years before both cases were resolved with both men receiving a sentence of life imprisonment inPennsylvania.
Citing case law in the plea agreement with Shoaf, Monongalia County Prosecuting Attorney Marcia Ashdown used a 1985 criminal case, Heath v. Alabama, that addressed the sovereignty of states. In it, it is made clear that double jeopardy does not apply from state to state, but only from jurisdiction to jurisdiction within a state. The double jeopardy clause of the Fifth Amendment does not prohibit one state from prosecuting and punishing somebody for a crime which he or she previously had been convicted of and sentenced for in another state. That is why the defendants in the case of Muha and Land could be tried a second time for murder.
Muha’s mother set out to ensure that other families did not have to go through an ordeal like the one her family endured. In April 2005, Brian and Aaron’s Law went into effect in Ohio permitting authorities to prosecute suspects in murder cases that begin in that state but have related activities in another state.
Dave and Mary Neese, Skylar’s parents, were similarly moved to act on their daughter’s behalf. Because of her initial status as a runaway, Skylar did not fit the criteria for an Amber Alert to be issued. Two months later, the West Virginia State Police and the FBI became involved in the case.
The Neeses said that was two months too long. They worked diligently to pass W.Va. House Bill 2453, “Skylar’s Law,” to ensure other families won’t have to wait for an alert to be issued for their missing child. It was enacted April 29. The law requires a reporting law enforcement agency to provide information about a suspected missing or abducted child to the West Virginia State Police in the initial stages of an investigation. It also requires the Amber Alert coordinator be contacted for a determination as to whether an Amber Alert will help to facilitate the safe return of the child.
In waiving her right to a trial, Shoaf pleaded guilty to second-degree murder. Among the caveats placed upon the agreement, Shoaf cannot challenge the validity of her plea by direct appeal in federal or state court. She must cooperate fully in the criminal investigation and testify in court if necessary. It was Shoaf who led authorities to Neese’s body in January.
Ashdown has recommended a sentence of 20 years in prison, but Shoaf could receive as much as 40 years in prison at sentencing.