James Carver speaks with defense attorney Chase Carter during his August 2019 trial in Highland County Common Pleas Court. (HCP Photo/Caitlin Forsha)
James Carver speaks with defense attorney Chase Carter during his August 2019 trial in Highland County Common Pleas Court. (HCP Photo/Caitlin Forsha)
The Fourth District Court of Appeals has affirmed the conviction of a New Vienna man found guilty of murder and rape after a jury trial in Highland County last August.

As previously reported, a jury convicted James Carver Aug. 8, 2019 of murder, rape, having weapons under disability, assault and tampering with evidence, following a trial in Highland County Common Pleas Court that was held on parts of four days.

Carver was sentenced to a total of 33 years to life in prison, including 15 years to life for the murder charge and a mandatory three years for a firearm specification; 10 years for rape; and 30 months each for the weapons under disability and tampering with evidence charges.

The victim in the case was a 33-year-old Wilmington woman, who was pronounced dead at Adena Greenfield Medical Center during the early morning hours of Tuesday, Feb. 19, 2019. After Carver’s conviction, Judge Rocky Coss said, “I’ve been involved in a lot of murder cases and homicides in 43 years as a prosecutor and judge. I think this woman suffered more than any victim I’ve seen that died.”

The appellate court said that in his appeal, Carver “challenges the sufficiency of the evidence of his convictions. He also asserts that the trial court erred by allowing his interview with a detective to be played in its entirety, in violation of the corpus delicti rule.”

The 50-page Court of Appeals decision, posted Thursday and written by Presiding Judge Jason Smith, determined there is “no merit to Carver’s arguments.”

Carver, represented by attorney Bryan Scott Hicks in his appeal, raised two assignments of error, beginning with: “The trial court erred in allowing the State to play for the jury the portion of [Carver]’s interview in which he discusses alleged consensual sex with [the victim] prior to her death. [Carver] made a timely objection on this ground at trial. [Carver]’s argument raises the issue of the proper application of the corpus delicti rule in this case.”

“We review a trial court's decision as to whether the State established the corpus delicti of a crime under a manifest weight of the evidence standard,” Smith wrote in the appellate opinion. “Thus, we will uphold the trial court's decision as long as the record contains some competent and credible evidence independent of the defendant's confession to establish that a crime occurred.”

Citing the Supreme Court of Ohio’s State v. Maranda case, the appellate court said of the corpus delicti rule: “[i]t has long been established as a general rule in Ohio that there must be some evidence outside of a confession, tending to establish the corpus delicti, before such confession is admissible. … Thus, a court may not admit an extrajudicial confession unless the State has produced independent evidence of the corpus delicti of a crime.”

During the trial, it was established that Carver had shot the victim in the chest, then later engaged in sexual intercourse with the victim. Highland County Prosecutor Anneka Collins told the jury that the victim could not consent to sexual intercourse in her condition. Among other testimony, an expert witness testified that the victim “would have been in pain … [and] that her liver and esophagus would have been bleeding at that point.”

The Court of Appeals determined that “the trial court property analyzed the testimony and the corpus delicti rule in this case.”

“We agree with the trial court’s conclusion that there was evidence of sexual contact and possible sexual conduct,” the appellate court wrote. “We also agree with the trial court’s conclusion that Dr. Casto, the deputy coroner who provided expert testimony, provided some evidence that [Carver] knew or had reasonable cause to believe that [the victim’s] ability to resist or consent was substantially impaired because of her physical condition.”

The appellate court also noted that the interview with law enforcement played during the trial “provides additional evidence of [the victim’s] physical condition after the shooting.”

“[Carver] knew or had reasonable cause to believe she was physically impaired,” the appellate court wrote. “In the portions of the interview which were not objected to, [Carver] told Detective Antinore that when they went back to the camper, [the victim] walked with his assistance and told him her back hurt. According to [Carver], [the victim] asked him to ‘try to get her some pain pills.’ [Carver] stated in the interview, ‘You can tell she’s not 100 percent.’”

In addition to evidence of the victim’s physical condition, the appellate court wrote that “arguably, [Carver] knew or had reasonable cause to believe that [the victim’s] ability to consent was substantially impaired because of her mental condition,” with injuries to the “face, head and scalp” and “swelling of the brain.”

“For the foregoing reasons, we find the trial court did not err in its analysis of the corpus delicti rule,” the appellate decision said. “We find there was some evidence that [the victim’s] physical condition was substantially impaired. This was some evidence of a material element of the crime of rape. Therefore, the trial court did not err by overruling Carver’s objection to playing portions of the interview with Detective Antinore in which Carver discussed consensual sex. As such, we find no merit to Carver’s argument that the trial court erred in allowing the full interview to be played and without redacting the portions referring to consensual sex.”

The second assignment of error raised is that “The state failed to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that it was murder instead of reckless homicide or that it was rape.” The Court of Appeals wrote that they disagreed with that challenge as well.

According to the court’s opinion, Carver “concedes responsibility for causing [the victim’s] death; however, he argues the State had insufficient evidence that Carver intended for her to be shot.”

Regarding the argument on Carver’s murder conviction, Judge Smith wrote: “We are not persuaded.”

Based on the interview with law enforcement played at the trial, the appellate court argued that Carver was not “completely forthcoming with the circumstances surrounding the gun.” In addition, the appellate court said Carver’s actions after the shooting are not “indicative of his concern for” the victim and “rather … tend to demonstrate [Carver’s] concern for himself and concealing his crime.”

“In this case, we defer to the jury who heard the testimony of the witnesses and also viewed [Carver’s] video interview,” the appellate court wrote. “We find there was sufficient evidence from which a rational person could find evidence of [Carver’s] intent to shoot [the victim] beyond a reasonable doubt. Thus, we find no merit to this argument contained within the second assignment of error.”

For the argument that “the State failed to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that [Carver] committed rape,” the appellate court again reviewed the “‘substantial impairment’ element” discussed in the first assignment of error.

“We agree with the State’s argument that a reasonable person could make the inference that after [the victim] was shot in the chest after struggling with [Carver], that she was substantially physically impaired so as to be unable to give consent to sex,” the Court of Appeals wrote. “[Carver] did in fact know that [the victim] was physically injured since he set in motion the events that caused her to be shot in the chest at close range.

“It may be inferred that given her physical injuries and substantial physical impairment, [the victim] knew she would not be able to resist sex with [Carver] … Given her physical injuries, it is reasonable to infer that [the victim] knew resistance was or would have been futile.”

The appellate court added that “any rational trier of fact could have found the evidence of substantial impairment beyond a reasonable doubt.”

To read the complete Court of Appeals decision, go to: http://www.supremecourt.ohio.gov/rod/docs/pdf/4/2020/2020-Ohio-4984.pdf.

For more on the Carver case, click the links below.