Sitting at home with her family on March 29, 2021, she got the phone call. I imagine she had just put her two little ones to bed and probably had propped her feet up (something she had to do quite frequently then because she was very pregnant at that time). Then the phone call came, one that would change her life and the lives of so many in our community.
It was a trooper with the Ohio State Highway Patrol, calling to report there had been a horrific crash on I-71. It was an immense scene, with possibly four people killed, and a driver who law enforcement believed to be impaired. The person who received the call from the trooper was Payton, an assistant prosecutor in our office who just happened to be “on-call” for reasons such as this. The trooper asked Payton to come to the scene, and Payton obliged.
As I look back on my career, I know there have been cases that have “chosen” me. Maybe that sounds a bit crazy, but it is true. Whether it’s a personal connection, a strong work ethic, or a positive attitude needed for the team, sometimes you just know that you were selected specifically for a case. And on March 29, 2021, the Sperl family, who died in that horrific crash, chose Payton to fight for them in court.
And fight she did. I’m so proud to be able to share the story of Payton and of all the assistant prosecutors in my office who give selflessly to our community because they were born to be public servants. Payton grew up in central Ohio and is smart as a whip. She sped through school and law school at rocket speed (graduating early even) and began her career as an assistant prosecutor in the State of Florida. Realizing the error of their ways, Payton and her husband moved back to central Ohio to be closer to family after a few years, and she joined our office as an assistant prosecutor in the juvenile division in 2019. Now, here we are in 2022, and Payton juggles three little ones while also being one of our assistant prosecutors who prosecutes adult felonies — like the horrific crash that took the life of the Sperl family. Payton loves Harry Potter and somehow manages to balance a demanding career, a family and a marriage.
Maybe you’re wondering why I am telling you all this — well probably because I’m just bubbling over with pride to see Payton “come into her moment” so to speak. No doubt this case shows that prosecuting is a calling for Payton, as it is for so many of my team members in my office. One of the most important responsibilities I have as prosecutor is to ensure the vitality of the prosecutor’s office, and that includes those under my command because without our team of Paytons, our safe community would surely suffer. My staff works tirelessly for families, victims of crime, and our community, and I’m just so dang proud to be their leader.
It’s not easy in today’s world to motivate and retain prosecutors. And I don’t blame anyone — would you respond to a job ad that promised you the opportunity to work 50-60 hours a week with a graduate degree and the opportunity to earn tens-of-thousands dollars less than your peers who chose to work in the private sector? Don’t forget “fringe benefits” of seeing heinous crimes, standing up for victims when the odds are stacked against you, and being changed forever simply because a new case was assigned to you. Most of what we do as prosecutors can’t be unseen or undone, and it is a weight we carry with us for the rest of our lives.
But, then there is Payton. There is Joel. There is Mark, Chris, Laura, Jaqueline, Cory, Beth, Evan, Anu, Dan, Adam and me, who all say yes, every single day to that job ad because, for us, prosecution is a way of life. It is a calling, an opportunity to serve our community, and make a lasting difference every day. Though the hours can be long, the work — at times — horrific, and the results are not always what we imagine, we can hold our heads high knowing that what we do matters.
So, as I said at the beginning, the Sperl family chose Payton on March 29, 2021. She worked tirelessly for their family — fighting various legal battles in court to ensure the impaired driver who took their lives would be held accountable. She worked with experts to ensure the prosecution had the best evidence. Payton was assisted by another experienced and dedicated advocate in our office, Joel Walker. I promise to write about Joel in a different column … but it may need to be a two-part series. Ha!
And then, on July 27, justice was served because of Payton. After all the work, time way from her family, stress and anxiety of the unknown, the impaired driver was held accountable for her actions. After a weeklong jury trial, the driver was found guilty of all charges by a Delaware County jury, and she was sentenced to 32-36 years in prison.
May the Sperl family rest in peace. We will never forget you.
Melissa A. Schiffel is Delaware County prosecutor.