Destani Neel in court

Destani Neel in an April court appearance.

LOGAN – A Logan woman who’s facing a possible death sentence in connection with the death of a 2-year-old girl has asked the judge in the case to approve expenses for hiring an expert defense consultant in the field of pediatric medicine, pediatric critical care, and child abuse. Her defense attorneys say they need the expert’s assistance to help prepare for a possible mitigation hearing in case their client is convicted of a capital charge.

Destani D. Neel, 27, is facing one count of aggravated murder of a victim under age 13; two counts of murder; one count of felonious assault, and two counts of endangering children. Her case is a capital case because of the aggravated murder charge with the victim age specification.

Neel’s co-defendant, the alleged victim’s father, 25-year-old Austin L. Starkey of Logan, is charged with murder, felonious assault, permitting child abuse, evidence tampering, and two counts of endangering children.

The charges stem from an incident in January, in which police and emergency personnel responded to a 911 call from a Logan apartment complex, reporting that a child had stopped breathing. The girl was transported to the Hocking Valley Community Hospital and then to Nationwide Children’s Hospital in Columbus, but did not survive. Authorities allege that her death was the result of injuries from an assault.

In late March, Hocking County Common Pleas Judge John T. Wallace granted a request by Neel’s attorneys to approve over $27,000 in public funding to hire various experts to assist in her defense. The judge authorized funding of $7,500 plus expenses for a consulting investigator; $10,000 plus expenses for a mitigation specialist; and $10,000 plus expenses to hire Bob Stinson, a consulting psychologist.

In a new motion filed June 22, Neel’s attorneys, Kirk McVay and Andrew Sanderson, argued that it is “essential that defense counsel be provided with the assistance of a psychologist to assist counsel in effectively ascertaining (Neel’s) competence, and in preparing for the possibility of a mitigation hearing in this matter.”

In addition to the experts already approved, the defense team wants to hire Stephen R. Guertin, M.D., of Michigan. Based on Guertin’s experiences in assisting in other capital cases, they say, the physician estimates that $5,000 should cover his review of medical records and case materials, consulting with the attorneys, and report writing if needed. If he needs to testify at trial or in a deposition, they say, this would probably cost another $3,000 to $5,000.

Much of the motion is focused on emphasizing the constitutional necessity for the defense in a death penalty case to effectively prepare for mitigation – essentially a phase of a trial in which the defense presents facts and circumstances that they believe should justify greater leniency in sentencing.

“Effective preparation is the keystone to effective representation,” the motion states. “In turn, effective assistance of counsel is central to the exercise of all other constitutional rights which protect capital defendants from arbitrary and capricious convictions and death sentences.”

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