SIDNEY — Fifty-two-year-old Ricky L. Wilkins, of Sidney, who was charged with a first-degree felony for involuntary manslaughter, had the charge dismissed in a plea deal, despite his videotaped confession.
The first-degree felony charge of involuntary manslaughter against Wilkins was dismissed in a plea deal and he was instead convicted on two third-degree felonies: illegal conveyance of prohibited items onto grounds of a detention facility and aggravated trafficking in drugs.
While both the judge and prosecutor signed the plea agreement documents stipulating Wilkins would serve consecutive terms of 36 months on each count; instead, in court the judge sentenced him to concurrent terms. This resulted in a sentence of three years, rather than six years, in prison. Wilkins also received two days of jail credit and a discretionary probation of up to two years after release from prison. His financial penalties included forfeiting $432 in seized cash and the costs of prosecution.
The police investigation
Fifty-three-year-old victim, James (“Jimmy”) L. Haynes, Jr., who resided in New Knoxville, died on Feb. 25, 2021, from a fentanyl overdose the same day Wilkins allegedly sold him the synthetic opioid.
Court documents dated Aug. 26, 2021, show a releative first mentioned Rick Wilkins on Feb. 26, 2021, as the individual who possibly supplied him with the drugs upon which he overdosed.
Then, around March 1, 2021, Wilkins allegedly took 15 to 150 grams of Methamphetamine into the Shelby County Jail for the purpose of sale, resale, or distribution. On that same date, Wilkins was pulled over by Deputy Frank Bleigh for traveling 60 mph in a 55 mph on 25A. Bleigh’s K-9 carried out a free-air sniff, alerting the officer to the presence of drugs in Wilkins’s vehicle. A one-ounce bag of Methamphetamine was recovered.
Wilkins was arrested. During the course of interrogation, Shelby County Sheriff Jim Frye said he confessed his role in Haynes’s overdose death after selling him fentanyl. Frye said the confession was video recorded and that to his knowledge there was no reason it would be inadmissible in court. He also said Shelby County Prosecutor Tim Sell was provided with all evidence, including the videotaped confession.
Ten days after the traffic stop, on March 11, 2021, the grand jury indicted Wilkins and he was arrested for involuntary manslaughter, along with other Methamphetamine drug charges that included illegal conveyance of prohibited item onto grounds, a third-degree felony, and aggravated trafficking in drugs, a second-degree felony. The grand jury found that Wilkins’s 2006 Hyundai was subject to forfeiture as was $432 in cash. (The Hyundai was not mentioned as forfeited in the sentencing document).
Wilkins’s defense attorney, Christopher R. Bucio, did not file a motion to suppress Wilkins’s videotaped confession, nor did he cite any circumstances contesting the circumstances under which the confession was obtained. For example, he made no accusations that his client had not been Mirandized, nor did he argue Wilkins’s confession had been coerced.
Instead, Bucio filed a motion to suppress evidence contesting the circumstances of the traffic stop, which was the basis for the other resulting charges for which Wilkins was ultimately convicted. Bucio argued the primary reason Wilkins was pulled over in his vehicle for traveling five miles over the speed limit was really because he was being surveilled as “a person of interest in an investigation” in Haynes’s death.
Sell stated in an interview that the traffic stop was unrelated to the involuntary manslaughter case, and, in court documents, Shelby County Common Pleas Judge James F. Stevenson cited reasons why the traffic stop was legally valid.
Bucio’s motion was denied on Nov. 9, 2021.
The plea deal
According to a Vera Institute of Justice (VIJ) September 2020 study, funded by the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, “In the Shadows: A Review of the Research on Plea Bargaining,” “For much of its history, plea bargaining remained a largely unregulated and informal form of pretrial negotiation,” Yet today, “Plea bargaining is more a part of the American justice system than the formal trial and, in fact, makes up the vast majority of criminal justice transactions … Indeed, by one estimate, a criminal case is disposed of by plea bargaining every two seconds during a typical work day in America … Only two percent of federal criminal cases—and a similar number of state cases—are brought to trial… And yet little is known about plea bargaining… The strength of the evidence against a person charged with a crime is perhaps the most salient factor prosecutors say they consider when deciding whether a plea deal should be extended.”
So highly pronounced is the problem that Justice Anthony Kennedy, who wrote the majority opinion for Missouri v. Frye in 2012, argued “[Plea bargaining] is not some adjunct to the criminal justice system; it is the criminal justice system.”
With the request to suppress evidence on the traffic stop denied, on Nov. 15, 2021, Wilkins entered a guilty plea agreement, accepting responsibility for two drug-trafficking charges involving Methamphetamine: illegal conveyance of prohibited item onto jail grounds and aggravated trafficking in drugs.
In the plea deal, the charge of involuntary manslaughter from the sale of fentanyl resulting in an overdose death was not reduced, but rather dismissed altogether, in exchange for Wilkins’s guilty plea on the Methamphetamine drug charges. Additionally, the second charge of aggravated trafficking in drugs was reduced from a second-degree felony to a third-degree felony.
There are critical differences in cases of confession that go to trial versus those that are pleaded out, the VIJ study pointed out. “Confession evidence is considered extremely persuasive at trial, which could make it an important factor during plea bargaining… [but] contrary to expectations … cases with stronger evidence received greater plea discounts than cases with weaker evidence.”
According to a telephone interview with Sell, there were several reasons why he accepted the plea agreement dismissing the involuntary manslaughter charge despite a confession.
First, Sell said Wilkins’ admission was to selling Haynes the drugs but “the real problem with the case is that no autopsy was performed on the body” in Auglaize County, where he died, to determine cause of death. “While we could tie the defendant to selling drugs to the person who died,” Sell said, in terms of the cause of death, so “ruling out other causes” was not possible “because there was no autopsy performed.”
By admitting to selling the drugs, “the confession gets us halfway there,” Sell said. Despite what he may have confessed to, Wilkins was “certainly was in no position to render a medical decision to say that the drugs he sold resulted in [Haynes’s] death,” because “legally I can only prove cause of death through the coroner,” Sell explained.
However, toxicology results are sufficient to assist a coroner when determining the cause of death in cases of suspected drug overdose. A representative in the Auglaize County coroner’s office stated a toxicology lab test was done from a sample taken from the body to determine what types of drugs or alcohol might be present. The official primary cause of death listed on Haynes’s death certificate from the coroner’s office is “accidental drug overdose with fentanyl.”
The death certificate is public record, and the cause of death listed on it was confirmed by the Auglaize County Health Department.
Second, Sell stated he typically reduces charges of involuntary manslaughter due to illegal drug overdose to the lesser charge of reckless homicide, a third-degree felony, saying both parties are partly responsible: the individual selling the drugs and the individual who chose to buy and use them.
Yet, according to the CDC, before COVID-19, synthetic opioids like fentanyl accounted for 150 deaths daily, and there has been a marked increase in overdose deaths during the COVID-19 pandemic from synthetic opioids, specifically, “highly potent opioids, such as illicitly manufactured fentanyl.”
Just how potent is it? Just 2 milligrams of Fentanyl is enough to kill, but many who take it may be unaware of this fact. In 2021, Fentanyl became the leading cause of death in America among those aged 18-45, followed by suicide, and COVID-19. These are two reasons Families against Fentanyl gained the signatures of high-ranking representatives in a letter to President Biden to label the drug a weapon of mass destruction to create harsher penalties to deter those who would traffic in it. These include Uttam Dhillon, the former acting administrator of the Drug Enforcement Administration and former director of the Office of Counternarcotics Enforcement in the U.S. Dept. of Homeland Security, as well as two former directors of the CIA, Michael J. Morrell and John O. Brennan.
Third, in this case, to the best of Sell’s understanding, Haynes’s family was okay with the deal where two third-degree felony sentences would be served consecutively.
But as it turned out, Haynes’s family would not see that consecutive sentence after all.
The sentencing switch
On Dec. 21, 2021, despite already having the involuntary manslaughter charges dismissed rather than reduced to reckless homicide and having one drug charged reduced in the plea agreement, Bucio entered a memorandum requesting a sentence of probation. The memorandum stated Wilkins is employed two days per week and did not have previous felonies on his criminal record.
Despite the fact that both Sell and Stevenson both signed the plea agreement, Stevenson halved Wilkins’s prison time in the courtroom — from six years to three — by switching the sentences so they would be served concurrently rather than consecutively.
When contacted after the sentencing was completed and the case closed, Bucio stated he had “no comment.”
Haynes’s family members were unreachable for a comment on the sentencing outcome through Shelby County Victim Services.