Originally Published by: The Toledo Blade (Blade Staff)
Date: March 17, 2015
Innocence that is condemned and punished corrupts a society far more than an unpunished crime. When that happens, the state’s only righteous recourse is to acknowledge the error, provide just compensation, and work to prevent it from recurring.
To its shame, Ohio routinely gives wrongfully convicted people, by forcing them to overcome onerous legal hurdles, neither justice nor compensation. By changing the laws that govern how the wrongfully convicted recover damages from the state, lawmakers can make this right — and they must.
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For inspiration, they can examine the case of Danny Brown. He made news this month when he filed another wrongful-imprisonment suit in Lucas County Common Pleas Court, after spending 19 years in prison for a crime he didn’t commit.
In 1981, a Lucas County jury convicted Mr. Brown, now 59, of the brutal murder of Bobbie Russell of Toledo, who was hit in the head, raped, and fatally strangled with an extension cord. Prosecutors argued that the rapist and killer were the same person, Mr. Brown’s attorney, Patrick Quinn of Columbus, told The Blade’s editorial page.
Nearly 20 years later, DNA testing identified the semen from the crime scene as that of another man, Sherman Preston. He has been incarcerated since March, 2000, for another, strikingly similar murder committed in 1983. At the county prosecutor’s request, Mr. Brown also took a lie detector test — and passed.
To her credit, Lucas County Prosecutor Julia Bates dismissed the charges against Mr. Brown, paving the way for his release. He walked out of prison, where he had been serving a life sentence, in 2001.
But by asserting that Mr. Brown is still a suspect, Mrs. Bates almost certainly has made it far harder for him to obtain compensation through the courts, and has kept a cloud of suspicion over his head that continues to compromise his freedom. The prosecutor could have retried Mr. Brown, but hasn’t.
In an interview with The Blade’s editorial page, Ms. Bates effectively acknowledged that she didn’t have the evidence to prove he was guilty. Nor does she have it now. Because Mrs. Bates has dismissed the charges, a new trial would gain Mr. Brown nothing.
Ohio is one of about 30 states that provide compensation for exonerated prisoners. In this state, prisoners can claim a statutory amount of roughly $47,000 for each year served — a paltry enough sum. The actual amount received, which may also include compensation for lost wages and attorneys’ fees, is determined by the Ohio Court of Claims in Columbus.
With DNA evidence pointing to another man and his case dismissed, a vindicated Mr. Brown should have been able to get damages from the state in weeks. But that’s not how it works in Ohio.
To collect the money, Mr. Brown in 2002 had to file suit in Lucas County Common Pleas Court to, in effect, prove his innocence. He lost that decision and appealed to Ohio’s 6th District Court of Appeals, which in 2006 upheld the suit’s dismissal in a 2-1 ruling.
Even if Mr. Brown had prevailed in the county or appellate court, the Ohio Court of Claims would have had to affirm the ruling before calculating and awarding damages. Prisoners such as Mr. Brown should be able to take their case directly to the court of claims. The standard for proof should be wrongful conviction — not innocence, which may be impossible to prove under any circumstances.
Mrs. Bates said last week that Mr. Brown remains a suspect, based largely on the testimony of the victim’s then 6-year-old son, Jeffrey Russell. Her son said then — and maintains today — that Mr. Brown committed the murder.
But even with adults, eyewitness testimony is frequently faulty and among the most unreliable of evidence. The boy also had told police, once or twice, that two people committed the crime, Mrs. Bates said, thus opening other possibilities, including that Preston raped the victim and someone else killed her.
“There are a lot of unanswered questions,” Mrs. Bates told The Blade’s editorial page. “There’s a reasonable doubt about what happened, but a finding of not guilty is not sufficient to establish innocence.”
In this case, procedure and conjecture have eclipsed justice. The state has, in effect, legitimized the noxious notion that a person who has endured the most appalling injustice must now, to alleviate that injustice, prove absolutely that he or she is worthy, even when there may be no way of proving innocence.
If the state takes the momentous step of releasing a convicted prisoner because the case against him has collapsed under new evidence, then the burden should fall on the state to show why it should not compensate the victim for the irretrievable loss of years of his life. Mr. Brown’s punishment is not over: As long as the shadow of doubt remains, Mr. Brown will face bias from employers and others, as his attorney, Mr. Quinn, has noted.
Unemployed and in poor health, Mr. Brown may have exhausted his appeals. It’s up to Lucas County Common Pleas Court to correct this injustice. And state lawmakers should change the law to make it easier for the wrongly convicted to make their lives whole, to help ensure that travesties like this aren’t repeated.