Watch a 2016 report on the sentencing of Susan Gwynne in the video player above.
COLUMBUS, Ohio (WCMH) – After twice throwing out a woman’s 65-year prison sentence for stealing from nursing home residents, the Ohio Supreme Court ruled the sentence will remain.
The Ohio Supreme Court reversed its previous decision to reverse the sentencing of Susan Gwynne, who in 2016 pleaded guilty to 46 felony burglary and theft charges for stealing while employed at assisted living facilities across Franklin and Delaware counties. The court previously ruled that the trial court should have considered the total combined prison term when imposing consecutive sentenced for a nonviolent, first-time felony offender.
But in the court’s 4-3 ruling on Wednesday, Chief Justice Sharon Kennedy – who was not chief justice when the court last ruled in the case – wrote that appellate courts must uphold trial courts’ findings unless clear and convincing evidence suggests the record did not support the imposition of stacked sentences. The case history did not satisfy that requirement, Kennedy wrote.
“Gwynne’s actions deprived the victims of their sense of security and their ability to trust their caregivers,” the majority opinion reads. “She also deprived the victims and their family members of heirlooms and the ability to continue their shared familial heritage.”
Gwynne stole more than 3,000 items, including many pieces of jewelry, from nearly 50 nursing home residents over eight years. After she pleaded guilty, reducing her charges from more than 86 to 46, the Delaware County Prosecutor’s Office recommended a 42-year prison term. A trial court judge handed down multiple sentences, ranging one to three years, to run consecutively for a combined 65-year term.
In 2019, an appellate court reduced Gwynne’s sentence to 15 years after ruling the lower court erred and the sentence constituted cruel and unusual punishment, but the Ohio Supreme Court instructed the court to reconsider under different standards. The appellate court then ruled that it had to defer to the trial court’s 65-year-sentence, triggering Gwynne’s initial appeal to the state’s high court.
On that appeal, a divided Supreme Court ruled that appellate courts are not required to be deferential to trial courts’ findings. But when the court changed hands after the November 2022 election, the state asked the court to reconsider.
The court reversed course with its Wednesday ruling, with Kennedy writing that Ohio law forbade the appellate court from modifying lower courts’ consecutive sentences unless it had a “firm belief or conviction” that the record does not support the issuance of consecutive sentences.
“This language is plain and unambiguous and expresses the General Assembly’s intent that appellate courts employ a deferential standard to the trial court’s consecutive-sentence findings,” Kennedy wrote. “[The law] also ensures that an appellate court does not simply substitute its judgment for that of a trial court.”
Justice Melody Stewart, who penned the court’s opinion to vacate Gwynne’s sentencing last December, wrote in her dissent that the legislature clearly intended to limit trial courts’ sentencing discretion. After state lawmakers passed legislation establishing the assumption of concurrent sentences over consecutive ones, the law was amended to require judges to consider the seriousness of the offense and the defendant’s danger to the public when imposing consecutive sentences.
The law also granted appellate courts the authority to meaningfully review trial courts’ sentences – which Stewart said should mean that on appeal, courts need not give broad deference to the finding of consecutive sentences. To think the law requires such broad deference, she wrote, is “illogical and unreasoned.”
Stewart further criticized the “short shrift” the majority gave to the question of whether the record supported the imposition of consecutive sentences. Had they, she said, they would have mentioned how Gwynne was considered unlikely to reoffend, caused no physical harm to her victims and apologized to victims in court.
“Although it is undoubtedly true that Gwynne’s criminal actions spanned a period of several years and that her conduct was aimed at a vulnerable population, it is also true that Gwynne had no notable criminal history prior to this time and, because of this, it is unknown what effect rehabilitation efforts might have had on her behavior,” Stewart wrote. “If the lead opinion is going to reverse our previous judgment ordering a remand, then it should at least attempt an honest analysis of the question before the court.”
Justices Pat DeWine, Joe Deters and Patrick Fischer concurred with Kennedy’s majority opinion, although Fischer concluded only in judgment, not reasoning. Justice Jennifer Brunner and 11th district appellate Judge Mary Jane Trapp, sitting for Justice Michael Donnelly, joined Stewart’s dissent.