Wrongful Imprisonment


By Justice Paul E. Pfeifer



On Sept. 30, 2009, Andre Coleman broke into the home of a man we’ll call C. K. Coleman was looking for his girlfriend, Valerie McNaughton, who was C.K.’s tenant. C.K. ordered Coleman to leave, but Coleman brushed past him, slammed McNaughton to the ground, and began beating her.

When C.K. saw Coleman move his arm behind his back, C.K. believed he was reaching for a gun. C.K. took his handgun from his pocket, saw what he thought was a gun in Coleman’s hand, and shot Coleman multiple times.

C.K. then stood over Coleman and pulled the trigger again when he saw the body move. Coleman died from his wounds.

After the incident, the state indicted C.K. for Coleman’s murder. At trial, C.K. admitted killing Coleman but relied on Ohio’s castle doctrine, asserting that he had acted in self defense. Nevertheless, the jury found C.K. guilty; he was sentenced to 18 years to life in prison.

But the court of appeals reversed the conviction as being against the manifest weight of the evidence, explaining that the castle doctrine creates a presumption of self defense: because Coleman had unlawfully entered C.K.’s house, he had a bona fide belief that he was in imminent danger of death or great harm, and he had no duty to retreat in his own home before using deadly force.

The court of appeal concluded that the jury had lost its way in rejecting the claim of self defense, and ordered a new trial.

Instead of a new trial, the state dismissed the indictment. C.K. filed a motion to seal the criminal record. At a hearing on that motion, a prosecuting attorney asserted that the state didn’t intend to reindict C.K. at that time, but that “it could in the future.” The trial court sealed the records, and the court of appeals affirmed that ruling.

In June 2012, C.K. commenced an action seeking to be declared a “wrongfully imprisoned individual” entitled to compensation. He alleged that the court of appeals held that the castle doctrine permitted him to use deadly force against Coleman and therefore he cannot and will not be retried for murder.

The state argued that C.K. couldn’t meet the required proof that the state cannot or will not indict him for Coleman’s murder, and that the case remained open.

The trial court ultimately ruled in favor of the state, concluding that the offense of murder has no statute of limitations, the state has the right to retry him at any time, and “the mere possibility of being reindicted and retried precludes C.K. from being found to have been wrongfully imprisoned.”

But the court of appeals reversed the trial court, explaining that the wrongful imprisonment law bars recovery for wrongful imprisonment only when future criminal proceedings are factually supportable and legally permissible.

After that, C.K.’s case came before us – the Ohio Supreme Court. The state maintained that the wrongful imprisonment law precludes a clamant from being declared a wrongfully imprisoned individual if the statute of limitations has not expired and the prosecutor still deems the case to be open.

It argued that it has reserved the right to reindict C.K. if new evidence of guilt comes to light and that it could retry C.K. at any time; thus, without proof that criminal proceedings will never be brought, it’s not possible for C.K. to show that he was wrongfully imprisoned.

C.K. argued that the law requires him to prove only that future criminal proceedings are not possible or not at all likely. According to him, there’s no indication that the Ohio legislature intended to exclude all those wrongfully convicted of murder from recovering for wrongful imprisonment based only on the lack of a statute of limitations for that offense.

What does the wrongful imprisonment law actually say? It requires a claimant seeking to be declared a wrongfully imprisoned individual to demonstrate that “the individual’s conviction was vacated, dismissed, or reversed on appeal, the prosecuting attorney in the case cannot or will not seek any further appeal…, and no criminal proceeding is pending, can be brought, or will be brought by any prosecuting attorney…against the individual for any act associated with that conviction.”

It’s well established that a criminal proceeding can be brought against an accused individual after reversal of a conviction as being against the manifest weight of the evidence. In such instances, the Double Jeopardy Clause does not preclude retrial.

Further, the dismissal of an indictment does not bar future prosecution. And the prosecutor has discretion to defer bringing criminal charges against a suspect in the hope of discovering new evidence of guilt.

In this case, following reversal of C.K.’s murder conviction, the prosecutor dismissed the indictment against him. But there’s no statute of limitations for murder, and thus, the prosecutor may bring new charges against C.K. at any time. There’s no need for the state to discover new evidence of guilt before it can retry C.K. for murder, and the prosecutor has discretion to defer prosecution until stronger evidence disproving the claim of self defense comes to light.

In asserting that no new charges can or will be brought against him, C.K. can point to the passage of time since the dismissal of the indictment, the absence of any current plans to prosecute him, and the lack of any active investigation seeking new evidence of guilt.

Those facts, however, are insufficient as a matter of law to establish the requirement of the wrongful imprisonment law that no criminal proceeding “can be brought, or will be brought” against him for “any act associated with that conviction.”

Rather, because there is no statute of limitations for murder, a new criminal proceeding can be brought at any time, and because the timing of that event is left to the discretion of the prosecutor, C.K. cannot prove that no criminal proceeding can or will be brought against him in the future.

Therefore – by a six-to-one vote – we reversed the judgment of the court of appeals.

By Justice Paul E. Pfeifer

Paul Pfeifer is an associate justice of the Supreme Court of Ohio.

Paul Pfeifer is an associate justice of the Supreme Court of Ohio.

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