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The lying detective

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Ryan Widmer can tell you that the State doesn't have to prove motive to convict you of a crime.  He was convicted of murdering his wife Sarah, and nobody has any idea of why he did it.

Widmer and Sarah had been married less than four months when the 911 operator received a call from him, claiming that he'd just come upstairs and found his wife lying face down in the bathtub.   Police and EMT's arrived shortly thereafter, but attempts to revive Sarah were unsuccessful.  The coroner ruled the death a homicide, and Widmer was charged with her murder.  His first trial resulted in a conviction which was vacated for jury misconduct, the second in a hung jury, but the third time proved a charm.  For the state, anyway:   Widmer was convicted of murder and sentenced to 15 to life.  During all three trials, no one testified that they'd seen the Widmers having any marital difficulties whatsoever; they appeared to be just like any other newlywed couple. 

To be sure, there was evidence against Widmer.  There were some inconsistencies in his testimony, and the coroner and other medical experts testified that injuries to Sarah's neck and head were sustained before her death and weren't consistent with injuries commonly resulting from attempts at CPR.  (Widmer presented experts who testified that the cause of the injuries was inconclusive.)  There was also testimony by a fingerprint expert who claimed to have found marks consistent with the theory that Widmer had drowned Sarah in the tub. 

But Widmer's attempts to get his conviction thrown out raise several interesting issues.

It's an old defense strategy to put someone else on trial, and that someone else in Widmer's case was the chief investigating detective, Jeff Braley.  While preparing for the second trial, Widmer's lawyers found some inconsistencies in Braley's application and resume, and subpoenaed his employment records, both with the police department and his prior employers.  In a hearing on a motion to quash the subpoenas, Braley admitted that he didn't have a master's degree, that he'd never worked as an engineer for GE, and that instead of working as a postal inspector for two years, as the application stated, he'd worked as a clerk at the post office for six weeks.  The mistakes weren't his, though, he contended; he said the signature on the application looked similar to his, but he didn't recall signing it, and didn't "recall at all" filling it out.  Before the third trial, the defense got a forensic analysis report from BCI indicating that the handwriting on the application might have been Braley's.

What's this got to do with anything? you might be saying, and so was the judge:  he quashed the subpoenas before the second trial, and denied a motion to reopen the matter before the third trial, finding that while there might be some issue with Braley's credibility, allowing extended questioning on that would create a "mini-trial" and confuse the jury. 

Back in 1995, in Kyles v. Whitley, the Supreme Court reversed a murder conviction because the state had failed to disclose Brady material, including inconsistent eyewitness statements.  The Court held that the withheld evidence could have not only been used to impeach the witnesses, but could have raised questions about the "thoroughness and even good faith of the investigation"; the failure to disclose robbed the defense of the ability to "undermine the ostensible integrity of the investigation" and "lay the foundation for a vigorous argument that the police had been guilty of negligence."

That's what Widmer tried to hang his hat on in both the appeal and his petition for post-conviction relief:  Braley was a liar, he was in charge of the investigation, and therefore his credibility was an issue with regard to the collection of evidence, the coroner's conclusion of homicide (Braley had attended the autopsy, and, the defense argued, pressured the coroner to conclude that the death was a homicide), and the decision to charge Widmer.

That went nowhere on the direct appeal, and fared even worse on the appeal from the denial of the petition for post-conviction relief.   While the 12th District in the former decision dismissed the Kyles claim in a paragraph, the latter decision earlier this year dealt with it far more extensively.

As the court explains, there are actually two arguments here.  While Brady requires the state to disclose exculpatory evidence (and later extended that to evidence affecting a state witness' credibility), four years earlier, in Napue v. Illinois, the Court held that a state violated due process in presenting knowingly false testimony.  There's a critical distinction in how those two violations are weighed, specifically with regard to materiality.  Under Brady, undisclosed evidence is material (and failure to disclose it a violation) "only if there is a reasonable probability that, had the evidence been disclosed to the defense, the result of the proceeding would have been different.  A 'reasonable probability' is a probability sufficient to undermine confidence in the outcome."  Under Napue, though, the use of perjured testimony is deemed material "if there is any reasonable likelihood that the false testimony could have affected the judgment of the jury." 

Regardless of the standard, the court in Widmer II highlights the issue:  "One of the most significant problems Widmer has had on this appeal was his lack of ability to connect the relationship between Braley's alleged misrepresentations and the reliability, weight, or quality of the evidence collected."  That statement comes in footnote 7, where we also learn that the 12th District apparently tapes its oral arguments, because it notes that it specifically asked the defense counsel about, and quotes the answer she gave, which the court found "almost crosses the line from permissible appellate advocacy to impermissible hyperbole that so distorts the evidence that it borders upon the absurd," and "cautions" her "in the future when making such representations of the facts as an officer of the court."

Widmer had one more arrow in his quiver.  He'd also requested DNA testing of Sarah's remains to determine if she had a congenital heart defect called Long QT syndrome.  Widmer's theory at trial had been that Sarah fell asleep and drowned in the tub, buttressed by testimony from friends and co-workers that Sarah often fell asleep at odd times, such as while tailgating at a football game or "sitting at a table with a bunch of talking women."  <Your joke here>.  His DNA request was based on a doctor's affidavit stating there is a "curious association between drowning and the Long QT syndrome."   That request, though, ran afoul of the statute, which permits DNA testing only to compare the offender's DNA to evidence found on the scene, so as to exclude him as the possible perpetrator; here, Widmer was requesting the victim's DNA be tested, for the existence of a potential birth defect. 

Widmer II rejects this as well, and there's an argument that due process requires the statute to be read more broadly than the panel was willing to do.  That argument will have to be made in Federal court, though, either on appeal to the Supreme Court or in habeas; in February the Ohio Supreme Court turned down Widmer's direct appeal, and last week it denied jurisdiction in the appeal from his post-conviction relief petition.


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