Oral Argument Preview: Proving Actual Innocence. Doss v. State.

Update: On December 6, 2012, the Supreme Court handed down a merit decision in this case.  Read the analysis here.

Read the analysis of the oral argument here.

On September 26, 2012, the Supreme Court of Ohio will hear oral argument in the case of Doss v. State, 2012-0162. The case will be argued at the Eighth District Court of Appeals, Cuyahoga County Courthouse as part of the Court’s off-site program. The case involves the application of R.C. 2743.48, Ohio’s wrongful imprisonment statute. At issue in this case is the fifth factor under the statute—a claim of actual innocence.


At issue in this case is whether the trial court properly granted Doss’ motion for summary judgment on his wrongful imprisonment claim when it relied solely on the court of appeals decision vacating Doss’ criminal conviction.


On New Year’s Eve 2004, 23-year-old J.P. was out celebrating with friends.  She consumed a large number of drinks throughout the night, and awoke the next morning in an unfamiliar apartment wearing unfamiliar clothes. There she encountered two people she did not know–Iran Doss and his girlfriend Eileen Wiles. The two drove her home. She knew neither of them. They claimed to have found her disoriented at the club where she had been drinking, and that they were taking her home as good Samaritans.  J.P. later became concerned that she had been sexually assaulted, and sought medical treatment. She reported the incident, and the resulting police investigation led to Doss.  Doss admitted to having intercourse with J.P. but maintained that she consented.  J.P. testified that, although she could not remember what happened that night, given her condition she would not have been able to consent.  The jury convicted Doss of rape and kidnapping.

Doss appealed the conviction.  The Eighth District vacated his kidnapping charge and initially upheld the rape conviction, concluding that there was sufficient evidence to support the jury’s finding that J.P.’s capacity to consent was substantially impaired and that Doss knew it, or should have.  Doss moved for reconsideration, which was granted. The new majority held that there was insufficient evidence to support the finding that Doss knew or had reason to know of J.P.’s condition.  The Supreme Court of Ohio denied the State’s request for review.

Upon his release, Doss filed a civil action in the Cuyahoga County Court of Common Pleas, seeking a declaration that he was a wrongfully-imprisoned person,  and moved for summary judgment.  The court granted Doss’ motion finding that the Eighth District’s decision to vacate Doss’ conviction could only be interpreted to mean that Doss was innocent of the charges or that no crime was committed by Doss.

Appellate Decision

The State appealed and the Eighth District affirmed the trial court, in a split decision.  Relying on its prior opinion, the majority found that the State’s failure to produce evidence that Doss knew of J.P.’s condition supported a finding of actual innocence.  The State appealed  this decision to the Supreme Court of Ohio, which accepted jurisdiction.

State’s Argument

R.C. 2743.48(A) requires a claimant of wrongful imprisonment to meet five criteria; the last requires the claimant to show that he is actually innocent. The State argues that the Eighth District’s reliance solely on the vacated conviction does not satisfy the statutory requirement of showing actual innocence.  A judgment of acquittal is not enough by itself to prove actual innocence. The Ohio Supreme Court has long held that an acquittal is not to be given preclusive effect in a wrongful imprisonment proceeding, even an acquittal based on the sufficiency of the evidence.  The claimant must affirmatively prove actual innocence, and Doss did not do so in this case. All Doss did was argue that his successful appeal entitles him to compensation for wrongful imprisonment.  It does not.

First, R.C. 2743.48(A)(4) already requires the claimant to establish that his conviction was vacated; accepting the vacatur as evidence of innocence would make (A)(5) superfluous.  Second, it defies logic to conclude that because the state failed to prove guilt beyond a reasonable doubt the defendant is innocent. Acquittal just means the state has failed to meet its burden of proof.  It does not mean the defendant is innocent.  Third, criminal proceedings are a poor proxy for determining actual innocence since constitutional safeguards prohibit compelling testimony from the accused at trial.  Finally, there is a danger that prosecutors may be reluctant to prosecute some cases for fear that a court may find evidence of guilt wanting and subject the state to financial liability for wrongful imprisonment.

Finally, the State argues that summary judgment was wholly inappropriate in this case. There is evidence from which a reasonable factfinder may infer that Doss committed the rape, thereby failing to prove, by a preponderance of the evidence, that he was actually innocent of the offense. The case is rife with disputed issues of material fact and abundant evidence contradicts Doss’s claim of actual innocence, including Doss’ own statements regarding J.P.’s level of intoxication.

Doss’ Argument

Doss argues that this is not simply a case where the jury found him not guilty of an offense, rather, the appellate court determined that he was innocent of the offense or that no crime was committed.  The State has offered no more evidence than originally presented to the appellate court, evidence which that court concluded was insufficient to support the jury’s verdict.  Doss argues that the determination by the appeals court that he was innocent or that no crime was committed has preclusive effect between the same parties in a wrongful conviction action.  The appellate courts finding of innocence precludes any contrary finding and satisfies the fifth criteria of R.C. 2743.48(A).

State’s Proposed Propositions of Law

I.  A trial court adjudicating a contested claim of innocence may not grant summary judgment in favor of a former inmate based solely on an appeals court finding that a criminal conviction was not supported by sufficient evidence.

II.  Under R.C. 2743.48 an inmate must prove actual innocence by a preponderance of the evidence, which is a separate and distinct legal standard than whether the evidence in a criminal case is sufficient to convict a person beyond a reasonable doubt.

Doss’ Proposed Counter-Proposition of Law

A trial court does not err in granting a motion for summary judgment to declare one a wrongfully imprisoned person where an appellate court in the criminal appeal has declared that the defendant is innocent or that no crime has been committed.

Key Precedent

Walden v. State, 47 Ohio St. 3d 47 (1989).

A judgment of acquittal may not be given preclusive effect in establishing actual innocence.  Rather, the claimant bears the burden of proving his innocence by a preponderance of the evidence.

Student contributor: Katlin Rust

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