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Sexual predators and appellate review

Sorry for the delay in getting this up today.  At around 7 this morning, AT&T decided, for reasons unknown, that we had canceled our office DLS, and disconnected it.  It only took them seven hours to correct their error.  Anyway...

Ralph Wilson raped four women back in 1975 and 1976.  He was convicted of the first rape, and pled guilty to the other three.  That wasn't his first offense; he picked up a weapons charge back in 1966, when he was 17, and a felonious assault case eight years later.  After he did a dime on the rapes, he got into trouble with a DWI and a parole violation, then did another nine years on a B & E, finally getting out of prison in 2001. 

In 2004, the court held a hearing to determine whether he should be designated as a sexual predator on account of the rapes.  The trial court said no, but the state took it up, and the 8th District disagreed, holding that

In reviewing the record, we find the state established, by clear and convincing evidence, that Wilson is likely to engage in future sexually oriented offenses. Wilson had a prior criminal history and displayed cruelty in his attacks. Therefore, based upon the evidence in the record, we find the trial court's decision was against the manifest weight of the evidence.

Well, yesterday, in State v. Wilson,  the Ohio Supreme Court decided that the trial court was right in the first place.  It pointed out that the trial court, in deciding not to designate Wilson a predator, primarily relied on the fact that he was now 54, that almost thirty years had elapsed since his last sex offense, and that indeed eight of the ten factors the trial court is supposed to weigh under 2950.09(B) militated in his favor.  (That little tidbit was missing from the court of appeals opinion; in fact, the Supreme Court correctly noted that the appellate court "did not evaluate or discuss the trial judge's rationale or any of the evidence the judge cited in support of his decision finding that the state failed to prove its case.")

But the Supreme Court's decision in this case has more import than just correcting a court of appeals ruling.  The key to the case, of course, is the appropriate standard of appellate review for evidentiary issues.  For whatever reason, under Ohio law that involves a bit more complexity than you might expect.

First, although a lot of lawyers, even some appellate ones, still regard sufficiency of the evidence and manifest weight of the evidence as the same thing, they're not.  About ten years ago, in State v. Thompkins, the Ohio Supreme Court decided that the two standards are "quantitatively and qualitatively different," and its analysis has been repeated like a mantra in just about every court of appeals decision involving either concept since then.  The short version is that under sufficiency, you look at the evidence and construe it most strongly in favor of the state, not getting into credibility; if all the elements are shown, it passes the test.  Under manifest weight, though, the appellate court gets to sit as a "thirteenth juror," can reweigh credibility, and can reverse to correct a "manifest injustice."

But wait!  That's only in criminal cases.  In civil cases, there probably isn't a distinction between the two.  (Wilson comes close to conceding as much.)  And manifest weight isn't nearly as freewheeling as it is in criminal cases:  in civil cases, the test is whether there's "some competent, credible evidence going to all the essential elements of the case." 

As can be seen, the civil standard is a good bit more deferential to the lower court than the criminal standard.  And in Wilson, the Court follows the line of cases holding that the purpose of the sexual predator classification is not punitive, but remedial (yeah, sure), and thus the civil, not criminal, standard is the appropriate one.

The irony of the Court's decision in Wilson is that, although it wound up affirming a lower court determination that a defendant was not a predator, the net result will probably be to wind up with a lot more predator designations in marginal or dubious cases.  As I'd mentioned a couple of months ago, the law on sexual predator classifications is so broad that there's not a lot of guidance coming from appellate courts on the sexual predator designations.  Given the much more deferential standard announced by Wilson, that guidance is going to be even harder to provide.

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