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Goodbye to Special Prosecutors

Criminal defendants batted 1.000 in three decisions from the Ohio Supreme Court this week -- more on that on Monday.  They took it on the chin in in the oral argument on State v. Barker, which I discussed yesterday, but they rebounded strongly the next day in State v. Davis. 

Hell, maybe I oughta write a sports column.

Davis was pretty much a lock to be a winner anyway, since it came up from one of the most inexplicable appellate decisions I've ever seen.  Roland Davis was convicted of aggravated murder in 2005 and sentenced to death.  His appeal and sentence was affirmed by the Supreme Court in January of 2008.  In October of that year, Davis filed a motion for new trial on the basis of newly discovered evidence, relating to the DNA evidence presented at trial.  The trial court denied the motion, finding that Davis had failed to demonstrate that he could not have discovered it within the normal timeframe of 180 days from the verdict, and that in any event the new evidence would not have changed the outcome of the trial.

Davis appealed, and here's where things got funky.  Instead of reviewing the trial judge's decision, the 5th District decided that the trial court never had jurisdiction to act on the motion, because of the 1978 Ohio Supreme Court decision in State ex. rel Special Prosecutors v. JudgesYou may have seen the case before; it's frequently cited for the proposition that a trial court loses jurisdiction over a case once an appeal is filed.

But Special Prosecutors had a more particular twist.  The defendant in that case, Ronald Asher, had pled guilty to murder.  He filed an appeal, alleging several defects in the plea, but the court of appeals affirmed.  At that point, Asher filed a motion to withdraw his plea, which the trial court granted.  Special prosecutors had been appointed to handle the trial, and intended to appeal that ruling, but screwed up and missed the deadline.  (Maybe they were that kind of "special" prosecutor.)  Instead, they filed a writ of prohibition with the appellate court, seeking to stop the trial court from proceeding with the case.  The appellate court denied the writ, but the Supreme Court reversed, finding that "the trial court's granting of the motion to withdraw the guilty plea and the order to proceed with a new trial were inconsistent with the judgment of the Court of Appeals affirming the trial court's conviction premised upon the guilty plea."

Now, that makes sense:  if you plead guilty, appeal on the basis that the judge shouldn't have accepted the plea, and lose, you shouldn't be able to go back to the trial court and file a motion to vacate the plea on the same basis as the arguments that the court of appeals have rejected.  But Special Prosecutors has been read more broadly:  that once the case is appealed, the trial court loses jurisdiction over it, even after the appeal has been decided.  That's the reading the 5th District gave it in Davis.

Other courts have done the same, but not in the context of a motion for new trial on the basis of newly discovered evidence.  In fact, the 5th District's reading of Special Prosecutors in this fashion effectively nullifies the possibility of a trial court ever granting a motion for new trial on that basis, since that motion would almost always have to be filed after an appeal.  To avoid that effect, which would obviously have due process ramifications, the State in Davis argued that the proper procedure was for the defendant to apply to the superior court for a remand to the trial court to determine the motion.

Oh, and one more thing:  since the 1993 amendment to the Ohio Constitution required all death penalty appeals to go directly the Supreme Court, that meant the Supreme Court was the "superior court" from which remand would be sought.  (That was actually the issue that the court had ordered briefing on:  whether the amendment was directed only at direct appeals, not appeals on collateral remedies.)  But only from here on out, the prosecutor explained in oral argument.  For the last 17 years, the appellate courts have in fact been handling these types of post-conviction proceedings; a ruling that those cases should have gone to the Supreme Court instead, and that the appellate courts' decisions are void because they didn't have jurisdiction, the prosecutor freely acknowledged, would cause absolute havoc.

All this was just too nuts for the justices.  Davis' attorney breezed through his oral argument without a single question, leaving himself an unheard-of 10 minutes for rebuttal.  The prosecutor?  Not so good.  How could the court make a jurisdictional ruling and limit it to only prospective application, wondered Justice Cupp?  How, Chief Justice O'Connor asked, would the Supreme Court make a determination of whether a remand should be granted so that a motion for new trial could be filed, in the absence of any record?

There's little question that the court's going to hold that appeals from post-conviction relief petitions and new trial motions can go through the appellate courts; that's how it's been done, and given the problems the court's had with some of its other ventures into the area of "void" judgments, it has little stomach for another foray.  But the decision should also result in a needed clarification of Special Prosecutors:  the trial court will retain jurisdiction over any matters not ruled upon by the appellate court.

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