She was stabbed, shot in the face and left for dead.
Now Ronda Blankenship feels she is being victimized again, this time by the judicial system.
Blankenship, the star witness in the 2013 incident that left her with one eye and her boyfriend and his two teenage children dead, has been battling defense attorneys seeking a plethora of personal information from her in the trial of the second of two brothers charged in the triple murder. The defense has requested her medical and psychological records, cellphone, laptop and Facebook and email passwords.
“I’m horrified that I’m being treated like a criminal,” Blankenship, 40, said in a recent interview. “I have no privacy. Period.”
Blankenship, though, has had help in the fight to protect her privacy. She contacted the Justice League, a nonprofit organization based in Columbus that provides free legal assistance to victims in criminal proceedings. The league recently changed its name to Ohio Crime Victim Justice Center.
In what is thought to be a first in Summit County, an attorney from the group is representing Blankenship in the capital case against Eric Hendon.
The inclusion of the Justice League in the already complicated case has prompted arguments about how to weigh the privacy rights of a victim with the due-process guarantee of a defendant, especially one who is facing the death penalty. This also has led many to wonder about the group whose name brings to mind a band of super heroes.
“I’m not sure what it is,” said Brian Pierce, one of two defense attorneys for Hendon who has been practicing law for 21 years. “I’ve never dealt with them before.”
Though the league may not be well-known in Summit County, the group has been operating in Ohio for 13 years.
Cathy Harper Lee, the league’s executive director, is a crime victim who wasn’t happy with how she was treated during her 3 ½-year experience with the court system.
“We had a gaping hole in our justice system where the rights of crime victims were ignored,” Lee said after a recent hearing in the Hendon case.
The league provides legal help to 200 to 300 crime victims per year. The organization is more active in smaller counties than larger ones. The group’s assistance often is behind-the-scenes, rather than in court, said Elizabeth Well, the league attorney who is representing Blankenship.
Well said the information the defense has sought, such as Blankenship’s Facebook password, is far reaching and may exceed the scope of the case.
“Of course, everyone knows everyone is on Facebook,” Well said. “That doesn’t mean the court is entitled to it.”
Marge Koosed, an emeritus law professor with the University of Akron, said Blankenship’s right to privacy is up against Hendon’s due-process protection, which is elevated because he is facing the death penalty.
“We don’t want to make mistakes,” Koosed said of capital cases. “You’ve got a high level of protection in the due-process clause.”
Koosed said in federal court cases in which privacy is an issue, judges often examine items to determine if they are relevant to the case. If the items are deemed irrelevant, they aren’t shared with the attorneys. This is the course Summit County Common Pleas Judge Amy Corrigall Jones has proposed in the Hendon case.
Eric Hendon and his younger brother, Michael, were charged in the New Year’s Eve 2013 shooting spree at the Barberton home of 42-year-old John Kohler, Blankenship’s boyfriend. Kohler, his stepdaughter, Ashley Carpenter, 18, and her brother, David Carpenter-Kohler, 14, died of gunshot wounds to the head during a home invasion for a stash of marijuana and drug money. Blankenship was stabbed in the cheek and shot in the head, losing her left eye.
Michael Hendon was convicted of multiple counts of aggravated murder and sentenced by Corrigall Jones to life in prison with no parole. He had been deemed mentally incompetent to face the death penalty.
Eric Hendon’s trial is scheduled for Feb. 17.
Blankenship was a key witness in Michael Hendon’s trial, testifying that Eric Hendon was the principal offender. However, an entry in Blankenship’s diary that surfaced in October showed she identified the family’s attacker as Michael Hendon. Prosecutors say she simply mixed up the names but has been consistent in her physical descriptions of her attackers, with Eric being the taller of the two brothers.
The journal entry led defense attorneys to seek Blankenship’s medical and psychological records, any electronic devices she used to communicate about the case and her email and social-media passwords.
Corrigall Jones issued orders last fall for this information to be provided to the court. The Summit County Prosecutor’s Office, initially resistant to the requested information being provided, issued subpoenas for the items.
Upset about the information being sought, Blankenship reached out to the league for help at the suggestion of the Summit County Prosecutor’s Office.
Well, Blankenship’s attorney, filed an appeal in the Ninth District Court of Appeals that challenges Corrigall Jones’ initial order for Blankenship’s personal items. She also requested a stay from Corrigall Jones pending the appellate court’s ruling and asked Corrigall Jones to quash the prosecutor’s subpoenas. So far, Corrigall Jones hasn’t take action on these requests.
In the meantime, Blankenship has provided Corrigall Jones with her cellphone, laptop and the other personal information that was requested. This information is being examined by the judge and defense experts and hasn’t been shared with either defense attorneys or prosecutors. Corrigall Jones has said she won’t provide the information to the attorneys unless she finds it pertinent.
“This court will never disclose personal information about the victim in this case,” Corrigall Jones said during a recent hearing.
Another hearing is scheduled for 2:30 p.m. Thursday about sanctions defense attorneys are seeking against prosecutors for failing to disclose information and being uncooperative. The defense is asking for a dismissal of the criminal charges, the removal of the death penalty specification or a prohibition against Blankenship testifying.
Prosecutors argue the sanctions request is baseless and should be dismissed.
Attorneys for both sides say the privacy issues raised in this case could have broader implications, though for different reasons.
Don Malarcik, Hendon’s other defense attorney, gave the hypothetical example of a police officer who testifies in a case objecting to a judge granting a defense request for the officer’s personnel file to be provided to the court.
“If a witness can appeal a judge’s order, every criminal case would come to a halt,” Malaricik said.
Assistant County Prosecutor Brad Gessner said in 30 years of practicing law he has never seen a victim required to provide her computer, passwords and the other information sought in this case.
“What is the purpose?” he asked. “To get her to say, ‘I’m done. I don’t have to deal with this anymore’?”
Victims in future cases could look at what happened to Blankenship and decide they don’t want to cooperate, Gessner said. “I’m glad she has an attorney.”
Blankenship also is glad she has representation and that the league is available to assist other victims.
“Knowing how I feel about my privacy being invaded, I don’t want anyone else going through that,” she said. “I think justice is not very accessible for us victims. They expect us to go through a lot more than we should.”
Originally Published: Feb 3, 2016 - Akron Beacon Journal