Merit Decision. Proving Actual Innocence. Doss v. State.

On December 6, 2012, the Supreme Court handed down a merit decision in Doss v. State,  2012-Ohio-5678.  In a unanimous decision written by Justice Lanzinger, the Court held that a wrongfully imprisoned person must prove actual innocence in order to receive compensation from the state, and Doss did not.  In finding that he did, the trial court improperly relied solely on the appellate court judgment vacating his conviction for insufficient evidence.  The case was argued September 26, 2012. View the oral argument preview here and the analysis of the oral argument here.

Case Background

Doss was convicted by a jury of kidnapping and rape. He appealed this conviction.  The pertinent challenges centered around the alleged victim’s consent—was she substantially impaired (in this case, drunk), and did Doss know, or should he have known, that she was? A substantially impaired individual cannot give consent.

Doss I.

In a split decision the Eighth District Court of Appeals upheld Doss’ conviction, finding that there was sufficient evidence to find that the alleged victim was substantially impaired and that Doss knew or should have known that.

Doss II.

Upon reconsideration, a split panel vacated the rape and kidnapping convictions, finding that the state failed to present sufficient evidence that Doss knew or had reason to know that the alleged victim’s ability to consent was substantially impaired. The appeals court ordered Doss discharged from prison.  The state appealed this decision, but the Supreme Court declined review.

Doss Seeks Compensation for Wrongful Imprisonment

After his release, Doss filed a declaratory judgment action pursuant to R.C. 2743.48, Ohio’s wrongful imprisonment statute, seeking compensation for wrongful imprisonment.  The trial court granted Doss’ motion for summary judgment, 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.

Doss III.

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 the alleged victim’s condition supported a finding of actual innocence. The state appealed this decision to the Supreme Court of Ohio, which accepted jurisdiction.

Cases and Statutes Necessary to Understanding this Decision

R.C. 2743.48(A)

This is Ohio’s wrongful imprisonment statute. In order to receive compensation from the state, the person seeking compensation as a wrongfully imprisoned person must satisfy all five criteria under the statute.  The sole criterion at issue in this case is 2743.48(A)(5), which requires proof that the charged offense (and any lesser included offense) was not committed by the individual or no crime was committed at all (actual innocence).

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

As a general rule, a verdict or judgment of acquittal in a criminal trial is a determination that the state has not met its burden of proof on the essential elements of the crime. It is not necessarily a finding that the accused is innocent.

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.

Griffith v. Cleveland, 2010-Ohio-4905

Syllabus

1. Only courts of common pleas have jurisdiction to determine whether a person has satisfied the five requirements of R.C. 2743.48(A).

2. All wrongful-imprisonment claimants must follow a two-step process. In the first step, the claimant must bring an action in the court of common pleas to secure a determination that he or she is a wrongfully imprisoned individual entitled to compensation. In the second step, the claimant must file a civil action against the state, in the Court of Claims, to recover a sum of money. (Walden v. State (1989), 47 Ohio St.3d 47, 547 N.E.2d 962, followed.)

Case Analysis

Process for Compensation for Wrongfully Imprisoned Persons

This is detailed in the statute and in the Griffith case. In this case only the fifth statutory factor, actual innocence, is in dispute.

Acquittal Does Not Necessarily Mean Actual Innocnce

Past precedent of the Court has established that a judgment of acquittal is not necessarily a finding that the accused is actually innocent, and therefore such a judgment cannot be given preclusive effect in a wrongful-imprisonment compensation claim. Also, a reversal on insufficiency of the evidence doesn’t automatically establish actual innocence either.

Position of the Parties

Doss argued that the vacation of his conviction and his release from prison are proof of his actual innocence.

The state argued that the wrongful imprisonment statute establishes a civil, not a criminal action.  In contrast with a criminal action, in which the state has the burden of proof beyond a reasonable  doubt, the wrongful imprisonment statute creates a civil action in which the burden of proof is on the accused to show by a preponderance of the evidence that he or she was actually innocent. A judgment of acquittal is not enough to do this. All Doss provided in this case was the appellate court decision. He provided no other evidence on the issue of consent. That was not good enough. He had to prove by a preponderance of the evidence that he did not know or could not have known of the alleged victim’s incapacity in this matter.

The Supreme Court here agrees with the state, and pretty much turns its proposed propositions of law into the case syllabus. (See both, below.)

Where the Lower Courts Went Wrong Here

The trial court improperly granted summary judgment solely on the court of appeals judgment in Doss II. That was wrong because it did not require Doss affirmatively to prove his actual innocence.  And then the Court of Appeals applied Walden incorrectly.

“[T]he judgment of the trial court that found Doss to be eligible for compensation and the appellate court’s judgment affirming that finding were not based upon an affirmative showing of actual innocence. They were based on a dearth of evidence of guilt. Both courts relieved Doss of his statutory obligation to prove by a preponderance of the evidence that he did not commit the charged offense, including all lesser included offenses, an obligation that must be fulfilled before he is allowed to claim the status of one who was “wrongfully imprisoned, ”’Lanzinger wrote.

What Happens Next

The court of appeals was reversed, and the case remanded back to the trial court for the proper proceedings in which Doss will be required to prove by a preponderance of the evidence that he was innocent of the charged offense.

State’s Proposed Propositions of Law

(1) 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

(2) 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.

Case Syllabus 

1. One who claims to be a “wrongfully imprisoned individual” under R.C. 2743.48 must prove all of the factors in R.C. 2743.48(A) by a preponderance of the evidence before seeking compensation from the state for wrongful imprisonment.

2. A trial court adjudicating proof of innocence pursuant to R.C. 2743.48(A)(5) may not find that the claimant was wrongfully imprisoned based solely on an appellate court judgment vacating a felony conviction due to insufficient evidence and discharging the prisoner without a remand for a new trial.

Concluding Observations

This was pretty much a foregone conclusion.  At oral argument all the justices in one way or another asked about the differences between an acquittal and actual innocence, and the difference in the burdens of proof in a criminal case and under the wrongful imprisonment compensation statute.  The decision reflected all these concerns very accurately.

Here’s what I wrote after argument:

“This looks like a reversal for the state, probably unanimously… This Court is not going to hold that vacating a conviction on the grounds of insufficiency of the evidence is the same thing as actual innocence, nor is going to hold that any defendant in a criminal case reversed by a court of appeals that is not remanded for a new trial is a wrongfully imprisoned individual. Doss can still try and establish his actual innocence, although this time he will have to in a full blown hearing, subject to cross examination, not just via a trial transcript. And the burden will be on him to do so.”

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