[This piece was published in the Columbus Dispatch on July 16, 2017, and is an update of a blog post published in August 2016]
If you believe the court system always renders justice, you’re mistaken. Just ask Dale Johnston. After spending nearly seven years on Death Row for two murders he didn’t commit, Johnston has yet to succeed in a 24-year ordeal to obtain compensation for his wrongful conviction. And the real killer is now behind bars.
Johnston was convicted in 1984 of killing his stepdaughter, Margaret Cooper, and her fiancée, Todd Schultz. The bodies were found nude, dismembered and decomposing. Each had been shot several times. Johnston’s link to the murders was circumstantial evidence. After a series of appeals, Johnston was released from Death Row in 1990.
With freedom in hand, Johnston pursued a claim against the state. To prevail under the wrongful imprisonment statute, Johnston had to prove he had not committed the murders, but he failed to provide adequate proof, and his case was dismissed in 1993.
The statute was amended in 2003. Now, a wrongfully imprisoned individual could prove either actual innocence or the existence of a procedural error. Johnston filed a second action in 2008, alleging both. That same year, Charles McKnight pled guilty to murdering Cooper and Schultz.
For reasons not clear, Johnston dismissed his suit in 2010 and later re-filed. In 2012, the trial court granted judgment in his favor. Quoting a U.S. Supreme Court case, the trial court held, “‘The law knows no finer hour than when it cuts through formal concepts and transitory emotions to protect unpopular citizens against discrimination and persecution.’ In its wisdom, the General Assembly provided a remedial law for situations like this one, in which a citizen had been wrongfully convicted and imprisoned by errors of Constitutional significance. Mr. Johnston has shown he is entitled to relief.”
The state appealed, and the Franklin County Court of Appeals held in 2014 that the amendment to the statute could not be applied retroactively to Johnson’s case and reversed. Johnston appealed to the Ohio Supreme Court. The court held the amendment could be applied retroactively and sent the case back to the court of appeals.
Obligated on its second review to apply the amendment to Johnston’s case, this time the court of appeals held that Johnston’s case didn’t meet the requirements of the amendment. With that, Johnston was down to his last move. He asked the Ohio Supreme Court in 2016 to review his case. On June 21, the court announced it would not hear the case.
How is it that an innocent man could be denied compensation for seven years on Death Row? Why in the world did Attorney General Mike DeWine feel compelled to appeal the trial court ruling in 2012? Certainly, it was not the amount of money at stake. The state’s exposure was $280,000 or so for the time Johnston spent on Death Row and whatever income he lost during that time and his attorney fees.
If DeWine was concerned about the precedent set by the trial court’s ruling, he could have negotiated an out-of-court settlement in exchange for Johnston asking the trial court to vacate its ruling. How is it no one in DeWine’s office thought about the big picture and fairness—Johnston deserved something for the seven years the state cost him.
Ohio Supreme Court Justice Paul E. Pfeifer was not impressed with the state’s position. He asked during oral argument, “Why didn’t the state just suck it up and say, ‘Look, the prosecution of this thing was drop dead wrong. The investigation of it was wrong. It was a mess. It was a miscarriage of justice, Mr. Johnston.’ So pay up. The state could have ended it right there.”
What about the court of appeals? Couldn’t it have seen things just a little differently so that Johnston could obtain some relief for what he endured. One of the three judges on the court’s panel dissented and would have held in Johnston’s favor.
Johnston had one last glimmer of hope. Rep. Bill Seitz, R-Cincinnati, proposed an amendment to the state budget bill, House Bill 49, that would fix what he contends are errors where the Ohio Supreme Court has “gone off the rails.”
The amendment was opposed by DeWine, who is concerned it would provide financial compensation for those who are released from prison because of procedural errors, not innocence. Maybe DeWine has a point. Then again, perhaps the state should be held accountable, even when a person released from prison for procedural errors might be guilty. That’s the price of violating constitutional safeguards.
Seitz’s amendment was deleted from the final version of the budget that was just passed. His office stated the amendment will be introduced again as stand alone bill after the General Assembly’s summer recess.
To someone like Dale Johnston, all this is mumbo-jumbo. All he knows is, the system has failed him.
Jack D’Aurora writes for Considerthisbyjd.com
Also published on Medium.
To subscribe to this blog, use the subscribe box at http://www.considerthisbyjd.com.