NELSONVILLE, Ohio — Donald Platt, a Nelsonville man convicted in the 2021 death of an 11-year-old boy, was released from prison last week after serving just over one year of his four- to six-year sentence. The state has appealed his release.
Also last week, attorneys reached a $101,000 settlement agreement in a civil suit related to Eli Spangler’s death, according to Michael Fradin, attorney for Spangler’s mother, Jessica Pyke.
On March 6, 2021, Spangler was staying the night at Platt’s house with his children, according to court documents. Platt’s son accessed his father’s firearm which was unsecured and loaded. Platt’s son testified at trial that he accidentally discharged the weapon while showing it to Spangler, killing Spangler.
Prosecutors argued at trial that by leaving the weapon loaded and unsecured, Platt’s actions directly caused Spangler’s death. A jury found Platt guilty of involuntary manslaughter and endangering children on Feb. 25, 2022.
Platt’s appeal of the decision is pending before the Ohio Fourth District Court of Appeals.
In his decision on Platt’s motion for judicial release, Athens County Court of Common Pleas Judge George McCarthy found that Platt was unlikely to repeat the actions for which he was convicted. The decision continued, “A sanction other than a prison term would adequately punish the offender and protect the public from future criminal violations.”
Among other conditions of release, the court placed Platt on five years of community control, barred him from possessing firearms and ordered him to complete a community-based correctional facility program. The programs “combine punishment and treatment” by providing mandated education, job training and more.
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In the motion for judicial release, Platt’s attorneys detailed the financial and emotional strain his imprisonment has placed on his wife, Tiffany, and family.
“Tiffany and her boys have struggled since Donald was incarcerated,” the motion states. “Tiffany indicated that she is under constant physical, mental, emotional, and financial strain as a single parent… She is also concerned about the effect of her husband’s absence on their children.”
According to court documents, Platt had two violations noted in his institutional summary of his incarceration at the Belmont Correctional Facility. McCarthy found neither was significant. Platt was housed at the lowest security level and in the honor camp, and he also completed programming and engaged in work details adequately, McCarthy noted.
Athens County Prosecutor Keller Blackburn said that family hardship or good behavior are not sufficient cause to release Platt when weighed against Platt’s actions and the information presented at trial. The state has appealed Platt’s judicial release.
“A lot of work went into getting justice for Eli, and I don’t believe a year was a significant time to serve for that,” Blackburn said in an interview. “So hopefully, the Court of Appeals will review the record and agree with us.”
Blackburn asserted that Platt has shown a “lack of genuine remorse,” although McCarthy found that he “expressed remorse at the judicial release hearing and at trial testified he tried to help the victim unsuccessfully and appeared remorseful.”
Pyke, Spangler’s mother, expressed dissatisfaction with the decision. “I still don’t think that he served enough time,” she told the Independent. “But everything is left in God’s hands and Eli’s hands, so they know what is right.”
The Office of the Ohio Public Defender, which represented Platt in his motion for judicial release hearing and represents him in his criminal appeal, declined to comment for this story.
Read more from the court docket:Platt’s motion for release
Judgment on Platt’s release
State’s notice of appeal
Attorneys reached a settlement agreement last week in Pyke’s civil lawsuit over her son’s death, said her attorney Michael Fradin.
Under the terms of the settlement agreement, American Modern Property and Casualty Insurance Company — Platt’s homeowners insurance company — will pay Pyke $101,000 payment minus attorney fees. Fradin said that amount was the insurance policy limit.
While the agreement still needs to be approved by the Athens County Probate Court, signed and paid, Fradin said the agreement has been decided “in principle.”
The wrongful death lawsuit argued that both Platt and Nancy Davis — who was in the process of selling Platt’s home to him through an installment contract — “had a duty to exercise due care and caution for the safety of invitees” into the home, including Spangler. Davis was previously dismissed as a defendant in the case without prejudice.
The initial lawsuit described the property sale as a rent-to-own contract — not a land installment contract. This would have meant Davis was Platt’s landlord and the responsible party for insurance. Because the transaction was an installment contract, Davis was “in the same position as a mortgage company, with no duty to monitor the actions of those living in or visiting the property,” said her attorney, Anna Mason. (Mason responded to the Independent’s request for comment after initial publication of this story.)
The settlement releases both Platt and Davis from any further legal responsibility related to Spangler’s death, Fradin said.
Fradin said the agreement sets an important precedent for responsible gun ownership.
“I think it’s really important that it sets up a precedent… from both a criminal standpoint and a civil standpoint that there’s going to be potential criminal liability as well as potential civil liability for adults who are irresponsible with their securing of firearms,” Fradin said.
Although Pyke expressed gratitude for the outcome of the civil suit, she said, “No matter what, I’m not gonna have my son back.”
Photos of Eli Spangler provided by his mother, Jessica Pyke.
Attorneys for Platt and American Modern Property and Casualty Insurance Company did not respond to inquiries by press time.
Read more from the court docket:Pyke’s civil lawsuit
Platt’s criminal appeal
In Platt’s appeal of his criminal sentencing, his attorneys argue that the key issue in the case was not Platt leaving his gun cabinet unsecured, but his son’s unsafe handling of the weapon, which resulted in Spangler’s death. Platt could not have foreseen his son’s behavior, the attorneys claim.
In the state’s reply, the ACPO notes that while his son’s actions were the most substantial factor involved in Spangler’s death, Platt’s role in “having a child over to his home, with loaded firearms in an unlocked gun cabinet, and not watching minor children while under his care are other substantial factors to consider.”
Platt’s attorneys rebut that Platt had no reason to expect that his son — who was taught about gun safety — would remove and mishandle a weapon, shooting Spangler. The son’s actions superseded anything Platt did or didn’t do as determining factors in Spangler’s death, the attorneys stated.
Platt’s attorneys also argued that evidence presented in court violated Platt’s rights due to its “egregious” irrelevance, intended to prejudice the jury against Platt. This includes evidence introduced by the ACPO concerning Platt’s son’s use of a nicotine vaping device and display of inoperable weapons in his room.
The ACPO argues such evidence indicated whether Platt adequately cared for his children and Spangler as an invited minor guest.
Platt’s attorneys put forward numerous additional arguments, including that the court allowed improper opinion testimony on gun safety from former Nelsonville Police Chief Scott Fitch and that Platt received inadequate representation from the Ohio Public Defender’s Office (which is also representing him in his appeal).
Cumulatively, the motion argues, the objections mean Platt did not receive a fair trial. They further claim that the indeterminate sentence of four to six years Platt received was unconstitutional. Although indeterminate sentencing has been common practice in Ohio, the Ohio Supreme Court is currently weighing a challenge to its constitutionality.
Blackburn said he expects a decision on Platt’s appeal within six months.
Read more from the court docketPlatt appeal
CORRECTION: A previous version of this story described Nancy Davis as Platt’s landlord and said American Modern Property and Casualty Insurance Company was Davis’s insurance company, based on information in court documents. This story has been updated to state that Davis was in the process of selling Platt’s home to him through an installment contract and was uninvolved in settlement negotiations. The story was also updated to reflect comment from Davis’s attorney.
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