A Cuyahyoga County jury began to hear evidence and testimony Wednesday morning in the penalty phase of Christopher Whitaker’s death penalty trial.
Whitaker, 45, was found guilty earlier this month on charges in connection with the abduction, rape and murder of 14-year old Alianna Defreeze in early 2017. In their opening statements, the defense attorney told the jury they would eventually hear from Whitaker himself before they would deliberate.
Although he confessed to the brutal killing of Alianna, Whitaker claimed he was high on crack cocaine at the time of the incident.
Alianna was abducted while on her way to school on Jan. 26, 2017. Her body was found in an abandoned home. On Feb. 13th, the jury found Whitaker guilty on all counts, including murder, rape, kidnapping, aggravated burglary, tampering with evidence and offenses against a human corpse.
“We’re not here to debate whether Ohio should have the death penalty; it does. We’re not here to debate what the criteria of the death penalty should be,” prosecutor Andrew Santoli said in his opening statement. “We’re asking you to determine whether the State of Ohio has proven the aggravating circumstances outweighs the mitigating circumstances.”
The prosecution immediately rested, telling the jury it had already proven the aggravating circumstances beyond a reasonable doubt.
The defense then called Mary McDonnell, an independent social worker that examined Whitaker’s childhood by interviewing friends, family and Whitaker himself.
McDonnell said mitigating circumstances certainly exist in Whitaker’s case, pointing to the loss of his mother when Whitaker was 8-years-old. Whitaker’s mother passed away following a lengthy battle with kidney disease. Not long after losing his mother, Whitaker’s oldest sister moved him and his six other siblings from their rural Tennessee home to Cleveland.
“I can’t tell you how important it is,” McDonnell testified. “Although we don’t often think about it, losing everything that you have that is similar and that you know is significant. He lost his friends, and literally overnight his world was turned upside down.”
McDonnell also told the jury that Whitaker witnessed domestic violence inside the home upon moving to Cleveland. The boyfriend of Whitaker’s sister would often beat her in the presence of the children, McDonnell said, citing interviews with family members.
“Witnessing domestic violence and the resulting trauma of that is something that is so powerful… in social work, psychology and psychiatry have huge bodies of research on it,” McDonnell said. “This is something that affected kids in ways that have profound consequences, not just on them, but for our society.”
McDonnell concluded the bulk of her testimony by saying the lack of a male role model in Whitaker’s life left a void that was eventually filled by his brother, Eric.
“His brother was very involved in the drug culture and [Whitaker] looked up to Eric. He was his role model. He also hung out with older adolescents who were also involved in that culture,” McDonnell said. “I believe that supported him in his experimentation and eventual addiction to drugs.”
Whitaker’s brother, Eric, briefly testified before the morning recess. He described Whitaker as withdrawn.
“He was always a loner. It’s hard to explain but he was always by himself. He was always a loner,” Eric said. “I didn’t let him see me do certain things. I know that him and his little brother, they talked about a lot of things I did. They might have even tried to duplicate certain things. I didn’t want that for him. I definitely never gave [drugs] to him. Along with everybody else, you get caught up in that life. When you do, if it's not for you, you shouldn’t enter it.”
Following the afternoon recess, the defense called Dr. Robert Kaplan, a forensic psychologist to the witness stand. Dr. Kaplan told the jury he administered 29 different tests on Whitaker in order to gauge whether he had a personality and substance abuse disorder. Dr. Kaplan’s testing also gauged how Whitaker deals with or controls his anger. Dr. Kaplan’s research, which included a four hour interview and listening to seven hours of jail phone calls, was compiled into a 55-page report.
Dr. Kaplan told the jury that his findings led him to believe that had Whitaker not suffered the loss of his mother and witnessed domestic violence, it’s entirely possible Whitaker would not be involved in a death penalty case.
“It was a contributing factor. It wasn’t the cause, but it was a contributing factor,” Dr. Kaplan said.
Dr. Kaplan also testified that his examination shows Whitaker was suffering from borderline split personality disorder.
“I believe the act of this anger on the victim was a manifestation of this disorder,” Dr. Kaplar said. “The split in his mind kept him unable to control [the anger] in that situation.”
Dr. Kaplan then underwent a lengthy, and oftentimes contentious, cross-examination, in which the prosecution questioned his expertise and certifications.
Testimony is expected to continue through Friday.