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Justices annoyed Ohio prosecutors boycotting bid to prevent wrongful convictions

Randy Ludlow The Columbus Dispatch

I am honored to be a member of this statewide task force and agree with Justice Michael Donnelly, that all justice-system stakeholders need to help prevent sending innocent people to prison while the real perpetrators remain free.

David Leland

To the annoyance of Ohio Supreme Court justices, county prosecutors are refusing to take part on a task force reviewing how to prevent and reverse criminal convictions wrongfully won by prosecutors.

The Ohio Prosecuting Attorneys Association and its two high court-appointed representatives backed out of the first virtual meeting Thursday of the Task Force on Conviction Integrity and Postconviction Review.

Chief Justice Maureen O’Connor convened the task force earlier this year to find ways to avoid wrongful convictions – and more quickly examine questioned cases once prison sentences have been handed down.

In a letter to O’Connor, prosecutors’ association Executive Director Louis Tobin submitted suggested best practices and wrote that the group was deferring to the judiciary and defense lawyers to make recommendations.

In an email to Gene Zmuda, task force chairman and judge on the Sixth District Court of Appeals, Tobin wrote of concern among prosecutors about the separation-of-powers constitutionality of the task force.

Tobin questioned the appropriateness of a judicially led task force making recommendations that would “impact the inner workings” of the offices of elected prosecutors in the executive branch.

“Needless to say, I am disappointed, but not surprised by this approach,” Zmuda wrote O’Connor on Monday.

O’Connor then wrote Tobin, asking him to reconsider and saying, “The legitimacy of the Task Force’s inquiry into matters of criminal justice cannot seriously be questioned. I see no separation of powers issues …”

Tobin, who previously seemingly endorsed the task force’s mission in saying “it never hurts to take a look at things,” could not be reached for comment Friday.

Justice Michael Donnelly, the court’s ex-officio member on the task force, also was disappointed, saying all justice-system stakeholders need to help prevent sending innocent people to prison while the real perpetrators remain free.

“Why wouldn’t the prosecutors, who are obligated ethically to seek the truth, want to be at the table?” he asked.

“This isn’t an attack on the prosecutors’ offices,” Donnelly said. “They should welcome challenges to the integrity of convictions … the need for improvement in post-conviction review, to me, is beyond dispute.”

Donnelly wondered whether the prosecutors’ stance is “symptomatic of an adversarial position that prosecutors take against the Ohio Innocence Project,” which has helped free nearly 30 wrongly convicted people. Its executive director, Mark Godsey, serves on the task force.

“Too many prosecutors review the Innocence Project as an extension of the criminal defense bar for a second bite at the apple,” he said.

Wrongful convictions in Ohio often are the byproduct of mistaken eyewitness identifications, coerced false confessions, misconduct by police and prosecutors and misleading forensic evidence.

The National Registry of Exonerations identifies 84 people who have been wrongfully convicted in Ohio since 1989, including 32 people convicted of murder and eight Death Row inmates.

The task force plans to submit recommendations for changes in court rules and state laws by next spring to help prevent wrongful convictions and more promptly free those found unjustly imprisoned.

rludlow@dispatch.com

@RandyLudlow

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