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Court of Appeals Has Jurisdiction to Review Denial of New Trial in Death Penalty Case Based on New Evidence

Even Though Appeals Courts Cannot Hear Direct Appeal of Death Sentence

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2009-2028.  State v. Davis, Slip Opinion No. 2011-Ohio-5028.
Licking App. No. 09-CA-00019.  Judgment reversed and cause remanded.
O'Connor, C.J., and Pfeifer, Lundberg Stratton, O'Donnell, Lanzinger, Cupp, and McGee Brown, JJ., concur.
Opinion: http://www.supremecourt.ohio.gov/rod/docs/pdf/0/2011/2011-Ohio-5028.pdf

Video clip View oral argument video of this case.

(Oct. 4, 2011) The Supreme Court of Ohio ruled today that, in a case where a death penalty has been imposed, the state’s intermediate courts of appeals have jurisdiction to review a ruling by the trial court denying the defendant’s motion for a new trial based on newly discovered evidence.  The Court also held that a trial court has jurisdiction to decide a defendant’s motion for a new trial based on newly discovered evidence even after the defendant’s death sentence has been affirmed on appeal by the Supreme Court of Ohio.

The Court’s 7-0 decision, which reversed a ruling by the 5th District Court of Appeals, was authored by Justice Judith Ann Lanzinger.

The case involved an attempt by Roland Davis to vacate his 2005 convictions and obtain a new trial on charges of aggravated murder, kidnapping, aggravated robbery and other crimes in connection with the killing of 86-year-old Elizabeth Sheeler in her Newark apartment.  Davis, who claimed that his brother had murdered Sheeler, was tried by a jury, found guilty and sentenced to death. The Supreme Court of Ohio upheld his convictions and death sentence on direct appeal.

In October 2008, Davis filed a petition in the Licking County Court of Common Pleas seeking leave to file a motion for a new trial based on “newly discovered evidence.”  The new evidence on which Davis based his motion was an affidavit from a California DNA expert, Dr. Laurence Mueller, who had examined the state’s DNA evidence and the trial testimony of the state’s expert after Davis’ trial was over. In his affidavit, Dr. Mueller indicated that in his opinion the state’s DNA expert had overstated the value of some of the DNA recovered from the crime scene, had incorrectly stated that it was impossible for non-identical twins to have the same DNA profile, and had failed to mention laboratory error as a source of uncertainty in DNA profiling.

The trial court denied Davis’ motion, finding that he had not shown that he was “unavoidably prevented” from obtaining Dr. Mueller’s review of the trial evidence within 120 days after the verdict was handed down in his case, as required under Crim.R. 33(B), the procedural rule governing postconviction motions for a new trial. The trial court also found that Davis had failed to demonstrate that “but for trial error − the unavailability of Dr. Mueller’s testimony − no reasonable factfinder would have found him guilty.” The court also stated that nothing in Dr. Mueller’s testimony suggested that Davis could be conclusively excluded as the source of the DNA evidence, or that the DNA conclusively matched Davis’ brother.

Davis appealed the trial court’s denial of his motion.  On review, the 5th District Court of Appeals held that the trial court did not have jurisdiction even to consider Davis’ motion for a new trial, because his conviction and death sentence had already been affirmed by the Supreme Court, and granting a new trial in the case would be inconsistent with the judgment of a superior court.

Davis sought and was granted Supreme Court review of the 5th District’s ruling denying the trial court’s jurisdiction to consider Davis’ motion for a new trial.  The Court ordered the parties to brief the additional legal question of whether an intermediate court of appeals has jurisdiction to review a trial court’s ruling on a new trial motion in a capital case, in light of a 1994 amendment to the state constitution that eliminated intermediate appellate review of death penalty cases in favor of direct review by the Supreme Court.

Writing for the Court in today’s unanimous decision, Justice Lanzinger noted that among the state’s 12 appellate districts, only one, the 11th District, appears to have reviewed the specific question of whether the 1994 constitutional amendment a) barred intermediate appellate review of a postconviction motion for a new trial in a death penalty case, or b) barred a court of appeals  only from hearing the appeal of a final judgment in which a trial court actually imposes a death sentence.

Justice Lanzinger discussed the 11th District case, State v. Jackson (2010), and wrote: “(T)he state filed a motion to dismiss, arguing that the court of appeals did not have the authority to entertain the appeal because a decision denying a new trial in a death-penalty case can be appealed only to the supreme court. ... The court concluded that ‘[Section 3(B)(2), Article IV, Ohio Constitution] refers expressly to a specific judgment that a court of appeals does not have the authority to review; i.e., the final sentencing judgment which sets forth the order regarding the imposition of the death penalty. Given the narrowness of the jurisdictional exception in Section 3(B)(2), logic dictates that the provision was not intended to totally deprive a court of appeals of all authority to review a final judgment stemming from a case in which the death penalty was imposed. Rather the wording of Section 3(B)(2) supports the conclusion that an appellate court has the jurisdiction to review final judgments rendered in such a proceeding, except for the entry containing the weighing exercise which leads to the imposition of the death sentence.’”

“We agree. A holding that the supreme court has exclusive jurisdiction over all matters relating to a death-penalty case would be contrary to the language of the constitutional amendments and the statute and would have the effect of delaying the review of future cases, a scenario that the voters expressly rejected in passing the constitutional amendments. We see no reason why the courts of appeals may not currently entertain all appeals from the denial of postjudgment motions in which the death penalty was previously imposed.  We now hold that pursuant to Sections 2(B)(2)(c) and 3(B)(2), Article IV of the Ohio Constitution, a court of appeals has jurisdiction to consider a trial court’s denial of a motion for leave to file a motion for a new trial based on newly discovered evidence in a case in which the death penalty was previously imposed.”

The Court also held that a trial court retains jurisdiction to consider a postconviction motion for a new trial under Crim.R. 33(B) after a defendant’s death sentence has been affirmed on appeal. Justice Lanzinger distinguished that legal issue from the issue analyzed in the supreme court’s 1978 decision in State ex rel. Special Prosecutors v. Judges, Court of Common Pleas.  In Special Prosecutors, she noted, a trial court improperly allowed a defendant to withdraw his earlier guilty plea and granted him a new trial after a court of appeals had reviewed and specifically affirmed the validity of that plea in upholding the defendant’s convictions.  In this case, Justice Lanzinger observed, Davis’ motion for a new trial was based on new postconviction evidence challenging the validity of DNA testimony, evidence that was not part of the trial record reviewed by the Supreme Court when it upheld Davis’ convictions and death sentence on direct appeal.

She wrote: “We take this opportunity to specify that the holding in Special Prosecutors does not bar the trial court’s jurisdiction over posttrial motions permitted by the Ohio Rules of Criminal Procedure. These motions provide a safety net for defendants who have reasonable grounds to challenge their convictions and sentences. The trial court acts as the gatekeeper for these motions, and, using its discretion, can limit the litigation to viable claims only. In light of the foregoing, we hold that a trial court retains jurisdiction to decide a motion for new trial based on newly discovered evidence when the specific issue has not been decided upon direct appeal.”

“Because the court of appeals misapplied the holding of Special Prosecutors in concluding that the trial court did not have jurisdiction to consider Davis’s motion for new trial based on his claim of newly discovered evidence, we remand this case to the court of appeals to reconsider the trial court’s ruling in accordance with this holding.”

Kenneth W. Oswalt, 740.670.5255, for the state and Licking County prosecutor's office.

Ruth L. Tkacz, 614.466.5394, for Roland Davis.