Soon after Summit County Common Pleas Judge Judy Hunter exonerated Douglas Prade last week in the slaying of his former wife, prosecutors announced they would appeal.
At the same time, Cuyahoga County prosecutors said they would continue to appealJoseph D’Ambrosio’s case – days after a judge ruled that he was wrongfully imprisoned for a slaying that put him on death row for about 21 years.
The cases highlight a mindset under which some prosecutors have continued their legal assaults on defendants after judges — following thorough, articulated reviews — attacked government attorneys as lacking even the basics needed to take their cases to trial.
And in the case of Prade, the judge went so far as to declare him innocent.
It has raised a growing concern about whether prosecutors are out to seek justice, as they are sworn to do, or to win cases at all costs.
“There is a litany of cases where some prosecutors have fought to keep convictions rather than work to find justice,” said Michael Benza, a law professor at Case Western Reserve University who also represented Brett Hartman. The state executed Hartman in November for the slaying of a woman in Summit County.
“It’s very difficult for some prosecutors to admit that they have made a mistake,” Benza said. “If you make a mistake in this case, how many other mistakes have you made?”
Defense attorney Terry Gilbert, who has represented D’Ambrosio in civil cases, agreed: “They hate to lose, and sometimes it’s difficult for them to accept responsibility when they are wrong.
“That’s a bad rap and a misconception,” said Ronald O’Brien, the Franklin County prosecutor and the president of the Ohio Prosecuting Attorneys Association. He said he welcomes any piece of evidence in any case his office prosecutes to be tested. “Prosecutors have a different role. They have to seek justice, not win cases.”
O’Brien has been hailed as a model for his open-mindedness and cooperation in dealing with defense attorneys seeking to have evidence tested.
“He’s what a prosecutor should be,” said Michele Berry, a defense attorney in Cincinnati, who has dealt with O’Brien’s office in the past. “Believe it or not, there are prosecutors who are not open-minded to the fact that mistakes can be made.”
So why do some prosecutors keep pushing cases after judges ruled so decisively against them?
“Because the judge might be wrong,” said John Murphy, the executive director of the prosecuting attorney association. “That’s why we have appellate courts. If we believe there is a genuine issue, we have to take it to the appeals courts.”
But some prosecutors don’t wait for appeals courts.
In an unprecedented move, then-U.S. Attorney Greg White asked judges to release more than a dozen people from prison after a botched drug case. In 2008, White made the move based on lies and phony drug deals by an informant who worked a Mansfield drug investigation.
DNA convinced judge Geoffrey Mearns is the president of Northern Kentucky University, the former provost of Cleveland State University and a former federal prosecutor. He said prosecutors persisting in a case in light of a judge’s decision raises some concern of whether they are out to win cases or seek justice.
But he stressed that each case must be judged on its own facts, as opposed to making categorical judgments about prosecutors as a group.
“Are there cases where that criticism is valid? Yes,” Mearns said. “But there are a lot of cases, many more, I believe, where prosecutors have consented to or initiated dismissals in light of new DNA evidence.”
On Tuesday, Hunter, the Summit County Common Pleas judge, exonerated Prade, 66, of Akron, enabling him to leave prison after spending 15 years there. In 1998, a jury convicted Prade of aggravated murder in the slaying of Margo Prade, his former wife. A judge sentenced him to life in prison.
Hunter said in her 26-page ruling that conclusive new DNA test results, as well as evidence from the trial, convinced her that responsible jurors could not convict Douglas Prade.
Based on that, she said, “the outcome of the deliberation of these offenses would be different,” Hunter wrote. “The verdict forms would be completed with a finding of not guilty.”
Summit County Prosecutor Sherri Bevan Walsh quickly announced that her office will appeal the decision. She said in a statement that DNA experts from the Ohio Bureau of Criminal Investigation interpreted the test results as “insufficient and unreliable and most likely proof of contamination or mistakes.”
While Summit County prosecutors are planning the appeals in Prade’s case, the appellate process marches on for D’Ambrosio.
Cuyahoga County County Common Pleas Judge Michael J. Russo ruled Jan. 11 that D’Ambrosio, 51, of North Royalton, was wrongfully imprisoned for the slaying of Anthony Klann. The decision means he can seek reimbursement from the state for his 21 years of imprisonment.
Days after Russo’s decision, prosecutors said they would appeal.
Money for D’Ambrosio If successful in obtaining the reimbursement, D’Ambrosio could receive more than $1 million from the Ohio Court of Claims. The court hears civil cases filed by residents against Ohio and its agencies.
Prosecutors have appealed several decisions involving D’Ambrosio since a federal judge overturned his conviction in 2006, ruling that prosecutors withheld evidence that might have exonerated him at 1989 trial. Four years later, Judge Kate O’Malley barred prosecutors from trying him again because they failed to disclose the death of a key witness.
A three-judge panel had found him guilty of killing Klann, whose body was found floating in Doan Brook in Cleveland’s Rockefeller Park.
Also last month, in a less noticed filing, prosecutors urged Cuyahoga County Common Pleas Judge Cassandra Collier-Williams to throw out a ruling by her predecessor to have D’Ambrosio’s case sealed. Judge Joan Synenberg, on her last day in office last month, ordered the case sealed. Prosecutors argued it would interfere with pending civil suits D’Ambrosio filed.
“Even with a no-brainer like an expungement, they can’t seem to let it go,” said Gilbert, who has represented D’Ambrosio in civil cases.
Matthew Meyer, an assistant county prosecutor, said in a statement: “We are appealing the wrongful imprisonment and expungement rulings. We are confident that we have the evidence to win both.”
D’Ambrosio isn’t alone in fights with prosecutors. Consider:
Darrell Houston, 44, of Cleveland who was awarded nearly $380,000 from the Ohio Court of Claims last month. That’s about half of the amount he is expected to be compensated for spending 16 years in prison for a 1991 slaying of a deli owner that he didn’t commit. He can obtain more money for lost wages and other expenses, an amount that must be litigated.
Last year, Cuyahoga County Common Pleas Judge Carolyn Friedland ruled that Houston was wrongfully convicted in a case built on the word of a witness, who said the killer of Said Ali looked like Houston. A jury convicted Houston in 1992, and he was sentenced to 33 years to life. The witness identified another man and said Houston was not involved.
In 2007, a judge ordered a new trial based on the witness, who said he feared for his life that the real robber would kill him and his family. At a second trial, the witness’ testimony prompted prosecutors to seek a dismissal of charges.
Houston later filed suit against the state, citing the fact that he was wrongfully imprisoned. Friedland handled the case and ruled in his favor. Prosecutors appealed the decision and brought up issues that linked Houston to the store.
The 8th District Court of Appeals upheld the decision last year, saying Houston had “demonstrated his innocence by a preponderance of the evidence.” Houston then took his case to the Ohio Court of Claims. The Ohio attorney general’s office is litigating how much Houston is to be paid.
Raymond Towler, 55, of Cleveland who was awarded $2.5 million in a settlement with the state after spending 29 years in prison for a rape of an 11-year-old girl at the Rocky River Reservation of the Cleveland Metroparks. A Cuyahoga County Common Pleas Court jury convicted him in 1981, and a judge sentenced him to life in prison.
In 2004, Towler, through the Ohio Innocence Project, pushed for DNA testing of the victim’s underwear. Towler was excluded. Then-Cuyahoga County Prosecutor William Mason’s office fought efforts to give Towler a new trial, claiming the testing was inconclusive.
Further testing excluded Towler, and his conviction was thrown out in 2010. He sued for wrongful imprisonment within days of his release from prison. A year later, his attorneys and government lawyers agreed to the settlement.