Wrongfully imprisoned individual


By Paul E. Pfeifer - Court of Appeals



This case – involving a man named Dale Johnston – began in September 1983 when a three judge panel found Johnston guilty of two counts of aggravated murder. The victims were his stepdaughter, Margaret Annette Cooper (Johnston), and her fiancé, Todd Schultz, whose dismembered torsos were found in the Hocking River and whose arms, legs, and heads were buried in a cornfield adjacent to the river.

Johnston was sentenced to death on each count, but the court of appeals later overturned Johnston’s convictions. When the state appealed that ruling to the Ohio Supreme Court, in 1988 (none of our current justices were on the court then), our court affirmed the court of appeals ruling to overturn Johnston’s convictions.

In reaching that decision, our court concluded that the trial court had abused its discretion in permitting a witness to testify about his post-hypnosis recollection. Also, the state had failed to disclose evidence that suggested that the victims may have been murdered at a location different from that alleged by the state, and that someone else may have been responsible for the murders.

During Johnston’s next trial, both parties jointly filed a motion with the trial court to determine the admissibility of the testimony of the witness who had been hypnotized. The court ultimately held that the hypnotically refreshed testimony was inadmissible.

The court also granted Johnston’s motion to suppress statements he had made during an interrogation, along with evidence seized from him and his residence. After that, the state withdrew the indictment against Johnston, and in 1990 he was released from the penitentiary.

That wasn’t the end of the story though. Johnston – not unexpectedly – filed a wrongful imprisonment claim. But that claim was dismissed in 1993, when the common pleas court concluded that Johnston had not proved by a preponderance of the evidence that he did not commit the murders.

It might have ended there, but two new events kept the case alive. First, in April 2003, the Ohio legislature amended the wrongful imprisonment statute and expanded the definition of wrongfully imprisoned individuals to include those who had been released due to a procedural error subsequent to sentencing.

Second, developments in the investigations into the deaths of Cooper and Schultz culminated in a man named Chester McKnight pleading guilty to their aggravated murders in December 2008.

Based on McKnight’s plea, Johnston filed a second claim for wrongful imprisonment, alleging that he was innocent and also claiming that errors in procedure, including the failure by the state to disclose evidence, resulted in his release.

The trial court accepted Johnston’s procedural error argument, rejected the state’s position that the 2003 amendment to the wrongful imprisonment statute was not retroactive, and declared Johnston to be a wrongfully imprisoned individual.

The state appealed that ruling, and the court of appeals reversed the trial court. The court of appeals held that the 2003 amendment did not apply retroactively to Johnston’s claim.

After that, we – the Ohio Supreme Court – accepted Johnston’s appeal. He argued that the court of appeals erred when it held that the 2003 amendment – which expanded the definition of a wrongfully imprisoned individual – does not apply retroactively.

The amendment stated that a wrongfully imprisoned individual is one who – subsequent to sentencing and imprisonment – is released because of an error in procedure, or it was determined by a court of common pleas that the offense of which the individual was found guilty either was not committed by the individual or was not committed by any person.

Although Johnston’s imprisonment occurred before the effective date of the 2003 amendment, he filed his claim seeking a determination that he was a wrongfully imprisoned individual after the effective date of that amendment.

The Ohio Constitution contains a Retroactivity Clause that prohibits the legislature “from passing retroactive laws and protects vested rights from new legislative encroachments.” And, it “nullifies those new laws that ‘reach back and create new burdens, new duties, new obligations, or new liabilities not existing at the time” the statute becomes effective.

When we determine whether a law violates the Retroactivity Clause, it involves a two-step test. First, we must determine whether the legislature expressly intended the statute to apply retroactively. If so, then we must determine whether the statute is substantive, rendering it unconstitutionally retroactive, as opposed to merely a remedial law.

A substantive statute is one that “impairs vested rights, affects an accrued substantive right, or imposes new or additional burdens…as to a past transaction.”

On this point, the legislation that created the modified wrongful imprisonment law stated that the 2003 amendment applies to “civil actions for wrongful imprisonment in the Court of Claims commenced on or after the effective date of this act, or commenced prior to and pending on the effective date of this act.”

This language expresses the legislature’s intent that the application of the 2003 amendment not be limited to wrongful imprisonment occurring after the amendment’s effective date.

Johnston commenced his action subsequent to the effective date of the 2003 amendment, and he will necessarily commence any resultant action in the Court of Claims after the effective date of the amended statute. Thus, the amendment applies to his claim even though his imprisonment predated the amendment.

As for the second step in the Retroactivity Clause test – the 2003 amendment is substantive because it imposes new liability on the state for past imprisonments. However, because the amendment impairs only the rights of the state and not those of individuals seeking recovery for wrongful imprisonment, the amendment may nonetheless constitutionally be given retroactive effect in light of the legislature’s clear expression of its intent for retroactivity.

Therefore, we concluded that the 2003 amendment applies retroactively to permit litigation of claims in accordance with the amendment. Accordingly – by a seven-to-zero vote – we reversed the judgment of the court of appeals and sent the case back to the appellate court for further action.

By Paul E. Pfeifer

Court of Appeals

Paul E. Pfeifer is a judge in the Court of Appeals.

Paul E. Pfeifer is a judge in the Court of Appeals.

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