The Ohio Supreme Court has vacated the death penalty conviction of a man who pleaded guilty to killing three women, citing a trial court error.
The state’s high court on Wednesday overturned the aggravated murder conviction of George C. Brinkman, 49, after ruling Wednesday a trial court did not advise him that he was waiving his rights to confront witnesses in the June 2017 slayings by pleading guilty, according to the ruling.
“We therefore vacate Brinkman’s convictions and sentences and remand the cause to the trial court for new proceedings,” justices wrote in a 7-0 ruling.
Brinkman initially pleaded not guilty to killing Suzanne Taylor, 42, and her two daughters, Taylor Pifer, 21, and Kylie Pifer, 18, in their North Royalton home outside Cleveland.
Brinkman later changed his plea to guilty and a three-judge panel sentenced him to death. But the Cuyahoga County judges failed to read Brinkman a complete list of his constitutional rights, including to force prosecutors to prove his guilt beyond a reasonable doubt.
“Here, the trial court, as well as counsel for the state and the defense, failed to adhere to the level of diligence expected in, and essential to, our criminal-justice system,” Chief Justice Maureen O’Connor wrote. “This inattention is impermissible, especially in a case such as this in which a death sentence is on the line.”
Brinkman’s attorney told Cleveland.com he welcomed the ruling, but added that there was “no excuse” for the error.
“To say what I suppose is self-evident: the court did the right thing,” attorney Jeffrey Gamso said. “What happened is clear. The simplest procedure everyone in the courtroom has participated in hundreds of times, they did wrong. No one was paying attention, and it was a death penalty case.”
Prosecutors said Brinkman bound the three women by their wrists and ankles before killing them, slitting Taylor’s throat and strangling and smothering her daughters. Brinkman grew up with Taylor, while her daughters were college students at Kent State University and Bowling Green University, Cleveland.com reported.
Prosecutors said Brinkman then went to Stark County after killing Taylor and her daughters and fatally shot another couple, Rogell John, 71, and his wife, Roberta John, 64, in June 2017.
Brinkman pleaded guilty to killing the Johns and he was sentenced to death in that case. He will remain on death row since Wednesday’s ruling does not impact that sentence, Cleveland.com reported.
The ruling, which a spokesman for the prosecutors’ office deemed “unfortunate,” now sends the case back to Cuyahoga County Common Pleas Court for new proceedings.
“This is a very unfortunate ruling that will cause additional trauma for the families of these victims,” Cuyahoga County Prosecutor’s Office spokesman Tyler Sinclair told Cleveland.com. “We empathize with them and share their frustration and disappointment. We remain committed to ensuring that this defendant is held accountable.”