The defense delivered their closing arguments to the jury Tuesday as the trial of a man accused of killing eight people in Pike County begins to wind down.
On Tuesday, court began early with the defense's closing arguments. John Parker, George's defense attorney, spoke to the jury and began by casting aspersions on the government and its agencies, like the Ohio Bureau of Criminal Investigations; It was stated several times throughout the trial that many people in Pike County and surrounding counties don't always fully trust law enforcement.
The government, in this case, overreached when it came to George, Parker told the jury, listing the things BCI did to gather evidence — including planting devices intended to listen in on the Wagner family. In addition, the prosecution spoke of the Wagner family as if it was one single unit, he said.
"The state, in this case, as you've heard, with respect to George paints a very broad brush," said Parker.
"Reason and experience teaches us that people don't kill each other over custody," said Parker, adding that reason and experience also teaches that people do kill one another over drug deals or large amounts of money.
Holding up the document, Parker said that, in a 77-page request for wiretap clearance on the Wagners filed in 2018, investigators wrote they didn't have enough evidence to convict the family. He suggested the jury, while in deliberation, go through that document to read where the investigation stood before the wiretaps and before Jake and Angela traded their testimony in their plea deals.
During his presentation, Parker was animated, gesturing broadly to the jury and pounding on the podium as he made his points.
If the jury chooses to believe Jake, Parker said, they should believe him when he said George tried to talk the family out of the murders and only went along at the last minute to protect Jake from their father, who George worried would turn on Jake. George claims he didn't go at all, Parker conceded, but if the jury believes Jake they have to believe his statement that George never intended to kill anyone.
He also pointed out that, despite the prosecution's claims that George went along with Billy and Jake that night, Angela only bought two pairs of shoes, which was at Billy's behest — Billy, who came up with the murder plot and was involved in Chris Sr.'s drug business if Jake and Angela were to be believed, Parker said.
The defense attorney spent time laying out all the ways George was different from his brother in demeanor and interests. He reiterated that George had tried on multiple occasions to run away from a family with which he never got along. But the Wagner family was "a quagmire, he couldn't get out of it," said Parker.
"Look at the evidence, take time to understand it, look at it from George's point of view," he said.
He pointed out the jury never heard George's interview with BCI at the Montana border, despite the prosecution citing it regularly during their cross examination of George. Prosecutors also never asked Jake about whether he bought the 1911 Colt pistol from a gun show in Columbus with George or how exactly he built the false bed in the pick-up truck.
The prosecution's rebuttal
Andrew Wilson stepped up to the podium to perform the state's rebuttal to the defense's closing arguments.
He began by declaring to the jury that Parker said something during his argument that "absolutely destroyed" the credibility of the defense's case: Parker's statement that, although they claim George wasn't there, if the jury believes Jake they should believe George never intended to kill anyone.
"You can't have it both ways," said Wilson, his voice loud and his actions animated. "The truth is either one or the other — you can't argue both."
The defense was attempting to put forward two defenses, which meant there was no credible defense at all, Wilson said. The reason Parker did this is because his client is guilty, Wilson added.
"He's up to his eyeballs in it with his family," said Wilson.
Wilson went so far as to insinuate that it wasn't impossible George was actually the one to pull the trigger of the SKS rifle at Chris Sr.'s home, pointing to testimony from both brothers that Jake's vision at night was terrible, yet the rifle shots formed a tight grouping. Despite that possibility, Jake hadn't made that claim, Wilson said, though he could have if he'd really wanted to throw his brother under the bus in his testimony.
Still, George doesn't have to have fired any shots to be found guilty in the state of Ohio, Wilson pointed out, explaining how complicity works in state law.
Wilson listed all the moments throughout the trial where, although he claimed he never killed anyone, the evidence showed George was complicit in his family's plot, ranging from the purchase of a phone jammer on George's credit card to signing forged custody documents.
Wilson also dismissed Parker's claims that the murders were never about custody — proof that the Wagner family was determined to raise both George's son, Bulvine, and Sophia solely as Wagners was evident in how Tabitha was removed from her son's life.
"They basically stole Bulvine," said Wilson.
It would never have mattered if Tabitha had gotten a good job, a new place to live that was clean and safe or if she'd moved away from her family, she was never going to be able to have the kind of custody arrangement she'd have wanted, Wilson said. Later, the same would be true of Sophia.
"They wiped out an entire family to get to Sophie," said Wilson.
The defense was mistaking "motive" with "justification," said Wilson, because the way the Wagner family justified the murders in their own mind was to tell themselves they were protecting Sophia from abuse — but the motive was always having control over how the girl was raised.
Where Tabitha and Beth had not, Hanna had family and a support system, Wilson said, gesturing to the area of the gallery where family of the victims sat each day of trial. That family would have never allowed Sophia to be taken from Hanna the way the Wagners had successfully wrested Bulvine from Tabitha, Wilson argued.
"Make no mistake about it, their desire to have Sophie and raise her 100% Wagner is why they did this," he said.
Someone that manipulative and in need of control wouldn't have taken a seat while his family plotted to murder eight people, Wilson said.
"He was coming and he was bringing hell with him
," said Wilson, using words George said in a recorded conversation. "This isn't the guy that sits on the sidelines."
As for the deals made with Jake and Angela, Wilson said dealing with them was "distasteful" but necessary. Without Jake's confession that led investigators to the murder weapons in the concrete buckets, the marijuana and drug operations Chris Sr. and Kenneth were involved in lingered as a possible motive they believed the defense could use.
"But when Jake led us to the guns ... no longer could they use that defense," said Wilson. "It destroyed that defense and it destroyed all the rumors you heard in the community."
From there, no longer were there suspicions surrounding cartel involvement, a fight Chris Sr. had shortly before the murders with someone who'd threatened his whole family or "the dirty sheriff who's now in prison," said Wilson.
Angela's deal was crafted so investigators could determine whether Jake's statement was credible and, ultimately, her confession independently corroborated his, Wilson said.
"They only way that happens without her knowing what he said is if they're telling the truth about what they observed, what they knew" said Wilson. "That's the only way that happens."
As for why the jury never heard the recording of George's interview at the border, Wilson said that was a strategic choice made by the prosecution in order to nudge George into taking the stand.
"If we play that interview, he doesn't take the stand and we never get a shot at asking him questions," said Wilson. "We don't play that and the only way he can get what he's trying to say in front of you is by taking that stand and subjecting him to cross examination."