By Jim Phillips
For The Athens NEWS
LOGAN – A former Cuyahoga County Common Pleas judge has been appointed to hear the only death penalty case currently pending in Hocking County Common Pleas Court.
Judge Janet R. Burnside was assigned by the Ohio Supreme Court effective Feb. 16 to hear the aggravated murder trial of Destani Neel, after Judge John T. Wallace recused himself due to his pending retirement at the end of March.
Neel, of Logan, is accused of having murdered her boyfriend’s 2-year-old daughter in January 2021. She is charged with aggravated murder with the specification that the victim was under 13 years old, as well as two counts of murder, one count of felonious assault, and two counts of endangering children. The first count carries a potential death penalty due to the victim’s age.
The victim’s father, Austin Starkey, was also charged in connection with his daughter’s death. Last July he took a plea bargain and was sentenced to 10 to 15 years in prison.
Because it is a capital case, Neel’s has generated a large volume of defense motions – around 50 to date – by her Ohio Public Defender attorneys, Kirk McVay and Andrew Sanderson.
Complicating the case further, McVay has recently withdrawn from Neel’s defense team, having asked Judge Wallace for permission to do so in a motion filed Jan. 31.
The request, which Wallace granted, came after Neel submitted a letter to the court expressing her desire to see McVay “withdraw or be otherwise relieved from further representation of her in this matter.”
McVay also reported that communication between himself and Neel had “broken down to a point of irreparable harm.”
Burnside is a former judge on the Cuyahoga County Common Pleas Court, General Division, in Cleveland. She was elected in 1991, and her most recent term expired in January 2019. She did not file for re-election in 2018. Ohio law does not allow judges to run for office after age 70.
Online court records indicate Neel has a pre-trial scheduled May 9.
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Jim Phillips is the editor of The Logan Daily News