If you had been incarcerated for two murders you didn’t commit and had spent nearly seven years on Death Row, you would think being compensated for the state’s error wouldn’t be that difficult, especially when the real killer later confessed. So, you would think, but Dale Johnston has been dealt one punch in the gut after another by the state of Ohio. The most recent came with an unfavorable ruling from the Franklin County Court of Appeals in June.
Johnston was convicted in 1984 of killing his stepdaughter, Margaret Cooper, and her fiancée, Todd Schultz. The bodies were found nude and decomposing, the appendages dismembered from the torsos. Each had been shot several times. Johnston’s link to the murders was circumstantial evidence.
In 1986, an appellate court reversed Johnston’s conviction on grounds the trial court had erred in admitting certain testimony and suppressing other evidence. The Ohio Supreme Court agreed and sent the case back to the trial court. After the trial court ruled as inadmissible certain evidence the state had hoped to present, the indictment was dropped in 1990, and Johnston was released.
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.
In 2003, the statute was amended. 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 Johnston’s favor. Quoting a U.S. Supreme Court case from 1944, Judge Richard A. Frye wrote, “‘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.”
Certainly, this must have been the start of something good for Johnston, but no, this was just the set up for punch in the gut no 2. The first, of course, was serving seven years on Death Row.
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. Once again, one would think things were looking up for Johnston.
Obligated on its second review to apply the 2003 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, the state of Ohio gave Johnston his third punch in the gut.
Johnston’s chances for compensation now hang on two remote possibilities. Perhaps the Ohio Supreme Court will take up his case again. An even longer shot is the General Assembly stepping in with special legislation.
How could so much go so wrong for an innocent man? Better yet, why did Attorney General Mike DeWine feel compelled to appeal the trial court ruling in 2012? It couldn’t have been the amount of money at stake. The state’s exposure was only $280,000 or so for the time Johnston spent on Death Row and whatever income he lost during that time.
Perhaps Mr. DeWine was concerned about the precedent set by the trial court’s ruling, but he could have reached an out of court settlement in exchange for Johnston asking the court to vacate the ruling. Legal issues aside, what about the big picture? Really, what was gained by denying Johnston the rather modest compensation offered by statute?
Ohio Supreme Court Justice Paul E. Pfeifer was not impressed with the state’s position. He asked during oral argument, “Now, Judge Frye was right. 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.”
And how is it the court of appeals couldn’t just see things a little differently so that Johnston could get some bit of vindication for what he endured. One of the three judges on the court’s panel dissented and would have held in Johnston’s favor.
Is it any wonder Johnson said after the last June’s ruling. “I’m beginning to wonder. I think they’re waiting for me to die.”
Can someone explain to me how justice was served in this case?
Jack D’Aurora writes for Considerthisbyjd.com
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