Written by: Tiffanny Smith, attorney at OJPC who represented Rhonda Head in a lawsuit (alongside the ACLU of Ohio)
Rhonda Head was convicted of murder and kidnapping in 2001. Her involvement in the crime stemmed from serving as the driver for a man in exchange for drugs which he had gotten her addicted to. On the evening of the crime, the man instructed Rhonda to drive and they picked up his associates and James Beres, whom the men claimed had ripped them off. The drug dealers beat Mr. Beres to death and threatened to kill Rhonda if she said anything.
Rhonda was sentenced to 15 years to life for the murder plus 5 years for the kidnapping to be served consecutively, for a minimum of 20 years. Two of Rhonda’s co-offenders were offered pleas to voluntary manslaughter in exchange for their testimony. They ultimately served far less time than Rhonda, even though they participated in the beating and disposal of the body.
In 2006, Rhonda was resentenced to 15 years to Life, making her eligible for release in 2016, instead of 2021. The original trial judge, who also presided over her resentencing, noted:
“Prison has been good for her, if you can say that. But it has precipitated her finding God, engaging in community service and good works and a drug-free life, and the Court, because of Foster, has the opportunity to take those factors into consideration. […]
I am persuaded that the five years may make a difference in Ms. Head’s life and may prove to be an opportunity that this Court would not regret giving her.”
Although Rhonda had no prior criminal record, a low risk to reoffend, excellent behavior in prison, a solid reentry plan, and had taken every rehabilitative program available to her, she was denied release and given another 5 years at her first parole hearing “due to the serious nature of the crime.”
OJPC, along with attorneys from Thompson Hine and the ACLU, sued the Ohio Parole Board. We believe that the Parole Board denied Rhonda’s release, without giving meaningful consideration to mandatory statutory factors that they must consider, because they had a practice of automatically denying prisoners on their first parole eligibility. This practice has been termed the “first flop policy.” A flop is when the Parole Board denies release and “flops,” or extends, the number of years until the prisoner can have another opportunity for release.
Subsequently, the Parole Board granted Rhonda’s release on parole reconsideration. After serving 18 years in prison, Rhonda was released on Monday, January 28, 2020. Effective in March 2019, Ohio enacted Sierah’s Law, which requires people classified as violent offenders to register on a new violent offender database for 10 years after release from prison. Had Rhonda been released in 2016, she would not have been required to register. Pursuant to the statute, an offender who has no prior convictions for violent offenses, is a low risk to reoffend, is not the primary offender, and is not a risk to the public can file with the sentencing court to be exempt from registering. Rhonda’s legal team has filed a motion requesting a waiver and a hearing is scheduled.
Rhonda is busy adjusting to life after prison, and has spent the first couple of weeks dealing with getting an ID and her other documentation in order. She is very lucky to have family support and is living with her parents in Lake County in northern Ohio. She has begun to apply for jobs and took several training courses while in prison that will be of assistance in her search.
Rhonda said recently, “I don’t know what I did to deserve such great people on my side, but I am thankful for it.” She feels a strong pull to help others who are still incarcerated. “It is like I was the lone survivor and now have survivor’s guilt for those left behind. Everyone says forget that place and forget those people; they will have their opportunity one day. But what would have happened if someone would have forgotten me? I have the chance to no longer just exist but to live.”