Socks, underwear, DNA seized in hospital at center of Niles murder appeal decision

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NILES, Ohio (WKBN) – There was a lot of evidence taken from Jacob LaRosa in 2015 on the day he killed 94-year-old Marie Belcastro.

Some of it was seized under a warrant after LaRosa had been taken to the hospital because it was initially believed he was injured, but then more was seized after Belcastro’s death was discovered and LaRosa became a suspect.

At issue in an appeal that was decided by the Ohio Supreme Court was whether socks, underwear and a washcloth taken by police should not have been allowed to be entered in as evidence at LaRosa’s trial, and if it shouldn’t have, did that decision impact whether LaRosa entered a no-contest plea in the case.

LaRosa argued that the socks and underwear, which had Belcastro’s blood on them, were his property and that he did not relinquish ownership of those items when they were removed by hospital staff to treat him.

In addition, a washcloth used by hospital staff to wash away blood in LaRosa’s groin area was also his property because it had his urine on it, therefore making the washcloth his.

In addition to the washcloth, underwear and socks, DNA evidence was taken from LaRosa’s hands, fingernails and penile area at the hospital as part of a search warrant.

The court ruled that the socks and underwear could legally have been seized if an argument was made that those items were in plain view of police and therefore could be seized as part of a criminal investigation, however, that argument was not made. Even so, the court ruled that the evidence taken from the socks, underwear and washcloth would not have made a difference in the case because of the DNA evidence that was seized from LaRosa’s other body parts under the warrant.

LaRosa argued, though, that he pleaded no contest because of the evidence that was presented and that his motion to suppress some or all of it was denied.

The Ohio Supreme Court ruled that although the trial court erred in admitting the socks and underwear, it did not err in admitting the washcloth because it was the property of the hospital, not LaRosa’s. In addition, the failure of the trial court to suppress the socks and underwear was “harmless” and did not impact the case or LaRosa’s decision to enter a no contest to the murder.

We conclude that the trial court’s failure to suppress the socks and underwear would not have had a material impact on LaRosa’s decision to plead no contest, given that the victim’s DNA was also found on LaRosa’s penis, on the scrapings of his fingernails, and his other clothing items.

Ohio Supreme Court

Trumbull County Prosecutor Dennis Watkins said Thursday that he is pleased with the Supreme Court decision upholding LaRosa’s conviction and sentence. He did say, however, that he strongly believes that the lower appeals court was correct under the Fourth Amendment in its decision finding all evidence in the case was constitutionally admissible, including LaRosa’s underwear and socks.

“We thank the majority of the Supreme Court for seeing that Jacob LaRosa’s guilt and sentence was not affected by any error,” Watkins said. “As this office goes forward, we will defend the work done by law enforcement, this office, the thoughtful and correct decisions by Judge Wyat McKay (and the fine work done by Judge Harwood), and the Eleventh District Court of Appeals, because Jacob LaRosa is guilty and he has received a just sentence under the law. The evidence is overwhelming and his rights were respected by police, which is why he pled guilty.”

LaRosa was sentenced to life imprisonment without the possibility of parole for the aggravated-murder count and an aggregate prison sentence of 30 years on the other counts of aggravated robbery and attempted rape to be served consecutively to the life-without-parole sentence.

LaRosa was also classified as a Tier III sex offender.

“Jacob LaRosa is guilty, one of the most guilty defendants I had in 31 years of being a prosecutor, and he truly deserves to spend the rest of his life in prison for the atrocious crimes he’s committed against Marie Belcastro,” said Trumbull County Assistant Prosecutor Chris Becker.

A new law in Ohio has had an impact on LaRosa’s initial sentence. Trumbull County Prosecutor Dennis Watkins was very vocal about Senate Bill 256, which went into effect on April 12 that eliminates a sentence of life without parole for the vast majority of juvenile offenders. Larosa was 15 years old at the time he killed Belcastro.

Watkins said that LaRosa’s sentencing came after hundreds of hours of hard work by the Niles Police Department, the Ohio Attorney General’s Bureau of Criminal Investigation, Judge Sandra Harwood, Judge Wyatt W. McKay and Assistant Prosecutors Gabe Wildman and Chris Becker.

Watkins said that while the life without parole sentence was “perfectly legal” under the Ohio and United States Supreme courts, the Ohio legislature has now eliminated the possibility for many juvenile offenders, “even some of the worst offenders.”

“This office will continue to vigorously oppose Jacob LaRosa’s release and take all necessary steps, including any potential appeals if warranted, to ensure Jacob LaRosa serves the maximum sentence permissible,” Watkins said.

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Mel Robbins Main Area Middle

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