Suppression of records sought in Blankenship case

JEFFERSON — A defense attorney for a woman accused of murdering her child argued Monday that the prosecution erred in obtaining search warrants for her medical records.

Kelsie Marie Blankenship, along with her boyfriend Joshua Gurto, is accused of murdering her 13-month-old daughter, Sereniti Jazzlynn-Sky Sutley, in October 2017. Gurto was arrested in November 2017 and Balnkenship was indicted and arrested one year later.

During a suppression hearing Monday before Judge Marianne Sezon, public defender Marie Lane, who represents Blankenship, made the case that prosecutors should not have obtained search warrants to access Blankenships’s medical records. Instead, motions through the court for such information should have been filed, Lane said.

“These were not search warrants, these were motions for the release of medical records without due process on the part of the defense,” Lane said.

Common Pleas Judge Thomas Harris, who signed the orders for search warrants in December 2018 and January 2019, did not have the authority to do so, Lane said. This is because Blankenship had already been indicted and her case was assigned to Sezon, Lane said.

“They went behind the back of the defense in order to obtain records that they could have obtained by filing a motion before this court and allowing the defense to at least argue and have due process before those records were released,” Lane said.

Harris, who serves as the court’s administrative judge, took the stand during the suppression hearing. He said he signed off on the search warrants. Harris said during the course of his career, if he felt an affidavit for a search warrant were insufficient he would ask prosecutors to obtain additional information before approving it.

“I believe as an administrative judge, and as a judge, that I have county-wide jurisdiction to issue search warrants for evidence anywhere in Ashtabula County,” Harris said.

Chief assistant prosecutor Cecelia Cooper said what was sought were indeed search warrants to obtain evidence specific to Blankenship’s motive and intent. During the course of the hearing it was said that Blankenship made statements to medical professionals about wanting to kill her children.

It is the usual practice in Ashtabula County for the administrative judge to issue search warrants, Cooper said. 

Lane said the affidavit for the search warrant states prosectors already had Blankenship’s medical records for the entire year of 2017 prior to and leading up to Sereniti’s death.

Lane said the affidavit for a search warrant from the medical facilities state all of Blankenship’s medical records from birth to present “would be valuable in assessing information about Blankenship’s overall wellbeing prior to and up to the rape and murder of her 13-month-old daughter Sereniti.” 

Property that can be seized with a search warrant are only evidence of a criminal offense, contraband or weapons or other things of which were used to commit a crime, Lane said.

“The information requested does not fall under any of these things,” Lane said. 

Cooper said the affidavits speak for themselves and the records contain evidence relevant to the case regarding Blankenship’s motive and intent.

“The state’s position is that the defendant’s statements claiming that she wanted to kill her child and herself are in fact evidence of a crime and the child was killed while in her custody,” Cooper said.

Jean-Philippe Rigaud, an Ohio Bureau of Criminal Identification special agent assigned to assist Conneaut police with the case, took the stand and said he met with Harris for a court order for search warrants for medical records after Blankenship was already indicted and arrested.

Rigaud testified that medical records authorities had on Blankenship for the period in 2017 contained statements by Blankenship that were “relevant and concerning” in regards to the child’s murder.

As an investigator and part of the investigative team, Rigaud said it is essential to determine if Blankenship reflected such thoughts or comments prior to her daughter’s birth.

Rigaud said what investigators were seeking through the search warrants was a broader scope of her mental state and not necessarily specific evidence of her part in the crime.

“I feel like it was a broader picture we were trying to seek of Kelsie and of her potential role in the death of her daughter,” he said.

Blankenship, of Conneaut, faces two counts of felony murder, one count of felonious assault (second-degree felony), two counts of endangering children (second-degree felony), one count of endangering children (third-degree felony) and one count of domestic violence (first-degree misdemeanor).

Sereniti died Oct. 7, 2017 from blunt trauma to her head and trunk, according to the Ashtabula County coroner’s office. Prosecutors say Sereniti was raped and beaten and died at a Clark Street apartment.

Gurto is facing charges of aggravated murder, murder, rape, felonious assault and domestic violence. A death penalty specification associated with the aggravated murder charge was dropped against Gurto as a result of Blankenship’s indictment last year, more than a year after his arrest.

Recommended for you