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What's Up in the 8th

Good news for Iran Doss. He got lucky with a woman he picked up in a bar.

Bad news for Iran Doss. She complained that she was too drunk to remember anything about that night, and Doss's statement to the police that he'd had sex with her was enough for a jury to find him guilty of rape under the "substantial incapacity" theory.

Good news for Iran Doss. The 8th District reversed his conviction, finding the evidence insufficient to establish that he knew or should have known of her impaired condition.

Even better news for Iran Doss. He sued the state for the two years he'd spent in prison on the case, and a judge found on summary judgment that Doss was entitled to damages for wrongful imprisonment, which the 8th District affirmed.

Bad news for Iran Doss. After the oral argument before the Supreme Court last week, it's abundantly clear that Doss's courtroom journey isn't near over.

Doss is one of a spate of recent cases out of the 8th on the wrongful imprisonment statute, RC 2743.48. I wrote about one decision, Mansaray v. State, just two months ago, in which the court held that Mansaray was entitled to compensation for the time he spent in prison before the 8th reversed his conviction because it determined the trial court should have suppressed evidence seized at the time of his arrest. Last week, the 8th issued only five regular decisions, about 20% of its normal caseload; one of them, Houston v. State, involved a wrongful imprisonment claim.

If nothing else, Houston demonstrates the value of persistence. Houston had been charged with aggravated murder, aggravated robbery, and weapons disability in the killing of a store owner in 1991; the jury convicted him of the first two and, pursuant to a pre-trial understanding, Houston pled guilty to the weapons disability charge after the jury's verdict. Multiple appeals, motions, and Federal habeas proceedings ensued before a judge granted a motion for new trial in 2007. The case proceeded to retrial in 2010, but the State dismissed the charges after the jury was empaneled. Houston then filed a complaint seeking to have the court declare him to be wrongfully imprisoned; under the statute, if the common pleas court finds in his favor on that, Houston then files his claim for money in the Court of Claims. The State argued that Houston's guilty plea to the weapons under disability charge at his first trial precluded a finding that he was wrongfully imprisoned, but last week the 8th affirmed, concluding that the plea was contingent upon a finding of guilt on the other charges, and once those other charges were vacated, Houston's plea was void.

That's a sensible result, but you had to look hard to find any evidence that the seven justices felt the same about the outcome of Doss.

The issue in Doss focused on the last requirement of the statute: the common pleas court has to determine that "the offense of which the individual was found guilty. . . either was not committed by the individual, or was not committed by any person." As anybody who's ever talked to a jury knows, an acquittal isn't equivalent to a finding that the defendant didn't do it; it could simply mean that the State didn't prove its case. For that reason, back in 1989 in Walden v. State, the Supreme Court held that a not guilty finding doesn't mean that a defendant has met the requirement under the wrongful imprisonment statute of proving his innocence by a preponderance of the evidence.

The argument in Doss didn't go much further than that: the appellate court had found the evidence insufficient, but that wasn't the same as Doss being innocent. O'Donnell suggested that all the court had to do was reaffirm Walden and call it a day. McGee Brown expressed concern about "opening the floodgates" for wrongful imprisonment claims, as if reversals for insufficient evidence were a common occurrence. Pfeifer and defense counsel engaged, to some end, in a discussion of the Scottish "not proven" verdict.

At first blush, that seems a bit cavalier in its treatment of the 8th District's decision. The court took pains to note that its decision was based upon "the unique circumstances" of the case, rather than the "insufficiency = innocence" formulation. Still, the facts of both the reversal of the criminal case and the affirmance of the summary judgment on the wrongful imprisonment claim leave room for criticism of the result in both. The reversal was based on the conclusion that the only evidence concerning the victim's mental state was Doss's own statement. That wasn't quite accurate; the reason the victim didn't testify as to her mental state at the time of the sexual conduct was because she claimed to have been passed out, and there was testimony by friends and witnesses prior to her leaving the bar with Doss as to her high level of intoxication. As for the civil case, Doss's motion for summary judgment was all of two pages, and contained nothing more than the fact that his conviction had been reversed.

But while Doss's legal Odyssey hasn't been concluded, he may yet safely reach shore. As Lundberg Stratton pointed out, this would merely be a reversal of the grant of summary judgment. Summary judgment, of course, requires that there be no genuine dispute of fact, but on remand, there would be little to prevent the court from resolving any disputes in favor of Doss and awarding him judgment.

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