The Ohio Supreme Court on Wednesday, January 11th, heard three oral arguments, including one filed by two men in prison are challenging the power of corrections officials to extend their sentences under the Reagan Tokes Act.
The session started at 9 a.m. with the cases being heard at the Thomas J. Moyer Ohio Judicial Center in Columbus. All arguments are streamed live online at sc.ohio.gov and broadcast live and archived on The Ohio Channel.
Brief summaries of the cases are available below:
State of Ohio v. Christopher P. Hacker, Case No. 2020-1496
Third District Court of Appeals (Logan County)
Based on the Reagan Tokes Act, do the sentence ranges for qualifying felonies violate the U.S. and Ohio constitutions – specifically, the separation of powers between government branches, the right to trial by jury, and the right to due process?
In December 2019, Christopher Hacker agreed to plead guilty to aggravated burglary with a firearm specification. The prosecutors dismissed two other counts. The trial court sentenced Hacker to six to nine years in prison for aggravated burglary and one year for the firearm specification.
Hacker appealed to the Third District Court of Appeals, in part challenging the constitutionality of the Reagan Tokes Act. The Tokes statutes were enacted after Tokes, a 21-year-old student, was abducted, raped, and murdered in 2017 by a man on parole. The Third District upheld the trial court ruling.
Hacker appealed to the Supreme Court of Ohio, which held his case and the appeal in State v. Simmons for a decision in State v. Maddox. In March 2022, the Supreme Court concluded in Maddox that an offender can appeal a prison sentence imposed under a Tokes Act provision before the Department of Rehabilitation and Corrections (DRC) extends the minimum sentence based on that law.
After Maddox was issued, the Court allowed this appeal and Simmons to move forward. In both cases, the Court agreed to consider whether the Tokes Act is constitutional.
State of Ohio v. Danan Simmons Jr., Case No. 2021-0532
Eighth District Court of Appeals (Cuyahoga County)
Does the Reagan Tokes Act violate the separation of powers between government branches and the constitutional rights to a trial by jury and to due process?
In December 2019, Danan Simmons Jr. agreed to plead guilty to having a weapon illegally, drug trafficking, and drug possession, along with a firearm specification. The prosecutors dismissed two other charges.
The trial court sentenced Simmons to five years in prison. The trial court did not sentence him to a range of years because it found the applicable law, which is part of the Reagan Tokes Act, to be unconstitutional. The Tokes statutes were enacted after Tokes, a 21-year-old student, was abducted, raped, and murdered in 2017 by a man on parole.
The Cuyahoga County prosecutor appealed to the Eighth District Court of Appeals. The Eighth District ruled that the Tokes Act is constitutional, reversed the trial court’s sentence, and sent the case back for sentencing.
However, Simmons appealed to the Supreme Court of Ohio, which held his case and the appeal in State v. Hacker for a decision in State v. Maddox. In March 2022, the Supreme Court concluded in Maddox that an offender can appeal a prison sentence imposed under a Tokes Act provision before the Department of Rehabilitation and Corrections (DRC) extends the minimum sentence based on that law.
After the Maddox ruling was released, the Court allowed this case and Hacker to move forward. The Court will consider in both cases whether the Tokes Act is constitutional.
State of Ohio v. Matthew Nicholson, Case No. 2019-1787
Cuyahoga County Common Pleas Court
Matthew Nicholson appeals his convictions and death sentence for two September 2018 murders in Cuyahoga County. Nicholson was living with his girlfriend, America Polanco, and her 17-year-old son and 19-year-old daughter at Polanco’s Garfield Heights house. Nicholson shot the teenagers to death while they stood in the driveway.
Individuals facing the death penalty in the state receive an automatic appeal to the Supreme Court of Ohio.
In 2014, Nicholson, then 25, and Polanco, then 41, began dating. He moved into Polanco’s house about six months later.
On the evening of Sept. 5, 2018, Nicholson arrived home from his job as an armed security guard. He stated that he placed his duty belt and his work-issued firearm in the trunk of his car. Later in the evening, Polanco received a text message from a phone number. Nicholson was suspicious, and Polanco eventually acknowledged that she was texting with a former boyfriend.
Nicholson and Polanco argued in their bedroom, and Polanco said that Nicholson strangled her to the point that she couldn’t breathe. She stated that Nicholson threatened to kill her and the children. During the argument, Polanco’s 17-year-old son, identified as M.L., knocked on the door, checking whether his mom was OK. Nicholson and M.L. argued and got into a physical fight, which moved into the kitchen.
Polanco’s 19-year-old daughter, Giselle, arrived home. Polanco told Giselle and M.L. that Nicholson was going to kill them. Polanco said that M.L. called 911 and Nicholson went upstairs to retrieve a gun. Giselle and M.L. went outside into the driveway. Nicholson said he believed they went to his car to get the firearm from his trunk. Polanco stated that when Nicholson returned with his gun, he opened the screen door and shot at Giselle and M.L.
Polanco ran outside, and Nicholson closed and locked the screen door. Polanco ran to her neighbors’ house, asking them to call 911.
Police and emergency responders arrived. The teenagers were transported to hospitals, as was Polanco after she said she felt ill while talking with police. A police lieutenant was on the phone speaking for hours with Nicholson, who remained in the house until he surrendered between 1 a.m. and 2 a.m. the next morning.
M.L. and Giselle died from their injuries. Law enforcement and medical examiners determined that Nicholson shot at the teens 13 times, and the gunshot wounds that hit the siblings were mostly in their backs.
Nicholson was indicted on counts of aggravated murder, murder, attempted murder, felonious assault, and attempted felonious assault. The aggravated murder charges included death penalty specifications.
In October 2019, a jury found Nicholson guilty of all counts except for the attempted murder of Polanco. Following the mitigation phase of the trial, the jury recommended that Nicholson be sentenced to death. The trial court agreed and imposed the death penalty.
In his appeal to the Supreme Court, Nicholson raises 20 legal issues in a 401-page brief.
Among Nicholson’s arguments:
He acted in self-defense when Giselle was in the driveway and pointed the gun from his trunk at him.
The trial court admitted improper evidence about other acts he allegedly committed earlier against Polanco and her children. He disputes the claims.
Law enforcement lost or destroyed material evidence , including photographs of the contents of his trunk, denying his constitutional right to due process. He maintains that photos of the trunk would have supported his assertion that Polanco moved his work firearm from the driveway back to his trunk after the shootings.
The Cuyahoga County Prosecutor’s Office responds:
The evidence against Nicholson was overwhelming, and the number of shots he fired undermines his self-defense claim.
The evidence of other acts that was presented at trial showed the years of physical and psychological abuse that Nicholson inflicted on Polanco and her children, leading to the murders.
Nicholson didn’t meet his burden to establish that the missing photographs would have been exculpatory or that they were lost in bad faith.
Along with the descriptions in this article, the Office of Public Information has released in-depth summaries of the cases online at: https://www.courtnewsohio.gov/cases/previews/23/0111/0111.asp#.Y73sixXMKUk