System failure

Kaitlin Gerber
Kaitlin Gerber

Toledoans have no reason to expect the local criminal-justice system to do a better job of investigating Kaitlin Gerber’s murder than they did of preventing it. Only an independent examination by Ohio Attorney General Mike DeWine can persuasively determine how the system failed so disastrously in this case.

A romantic relationship gone bad should never be allowed to escalate to homicide. But that happened to Miss Gerber, a 20-year-old woman who was harassed, stalked, and finally shot to death by a former boyfriend this week in a South Toledo parking lot.

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That tragic outcome cannot change. The most useful tribute this community now can pay Miss Gerber and her family is a full, fair, but searching investigation of the roles played by agents of local law enforcement — judges, prosecutors, police, jail officials, victim advocates — in the events that led to her murder, and a resolve to take action so that another such outrage will not occur. These agents cannot credibly investigate themselves.

Miss Gerber’s assailant, Jashua Perz, killed himself at his Maumee home on Sunday, as police closed in hours after he had chased the victim in his car and shot her four times in the back. He faced sentencing in May for repeatedly violating a court order that he not contact Miss Gerber.

Last September, Perz beat Miss Gerber at the South Toledo apartment they shared; Miss Gerber said he also had threatened to kill her. He pleaded no contest to charges of domestic violence and illegal restraint in Toledo Municipal Court, and was sentenced to 180 days at the Corrections Center of Northwest Ohio in Stryker, Ohio; he served 153 days.

In late February, Perz pleaded guilty in Sylvania Municipal Court to violating the protection order. As part of that plea bargain, a judge accepted a prosecutor’s recommendation to dismiss three other charges. He released Perz without bail while the defendant awaited a pre-sentence investigation and sentencing.

Perz’s record of serious crime was well established. He was convicted of child endangerment in Lucas County in 2007. A year later, he was convicted of pandering obscene materials involving a minor. The latter felony conviction should have prevented him from possessing guns, but it didn’t.

Perz also was under a protective order in Michigan that his stepmother had sought; she said he had threatened to kill her. It isn’t clear whether prosecutors in Miss Gerber’s case knew of that order, which was renewed in mid-February.

In any event, Miss Gerber’s mother, a University of Toledo police officer, says prosecutors persuaded her daughter to agree to let Perz plead guilty to charges less than kidnapping — a felony that could have sent him to prison for years.

Officials at the Stryker jail did not prevent Perz from repeatedly calling and sending letters to Miss Gerber. Jail officials said they were not notified that he had violated the protection order.

Miss Gerber’s mother claims the Sylvania prosecutor’s office provided only limited information about the plea agreement she signed that permitted Perz’s release. Chillingly, she says her daughter predicted the day he was set free that his sentencing “would never happen.”

Toledoans can sympathize with Miss Gerber’s mother when she asserts that justice-system officials should not have released Perz “without them knowing who he was and what he was capable of.’ Such assessments are not an exact science. But at a devastatingly high price, this tragedy can — and must — yield answers about how the system broke down.

The various actors are saying they did nothing wrong. Some are saying that Miss Gerber wanted her attacker to face the lesser charges; the family disputes that assertion. But most officials appear not to have gone beyond their assigned duties to help or protect Miss Gerber.

In other states, a coroner’s inquest could provide a full examination of the circumstances of such a violent death. Dr. James Patrick, Lucas County’s coroner, says Ohio law does not authorize him to conduct a wide-ranging investigation.

Sylvania Law Director Jim Moan says he will review how Perz’s prosecution was handled in his community. That is at best a partial response.

Mr. DeWine intervened usefully in the recent Steubenville rape prosecution. Cleveland authorities asked him to investigate a police chase in that city in which civilians were killed.

His office could perform a similar review of the Gerber case. But Mr. DeWine says he cannot conduct an independent investigation unless local police or prosecutors request that he do so.

Lucas County Prosecutor Julia Bates concedes that official actions in this case demand “very close scrutiny.” She should immediately call in Mr. DeWine.