Appellate Court Reverses the Trial Court’s Finding of “Actual Innocence” in Prade Case.

There’s been a lot of interest on the blog in the Prade case, in which former Akron police captain Douglas Prade was found guilty of the 1997 aggravated murder of his ex-wife Dr. Margo Prade.  Prade was sentenced to life in prison.  In 2012, based on the results of new DNA testing ordered in his case, Prade was declared “actually innocent” of Margo’s murder.

On March 19, 2014, a three judge panel of the Ohio Ninth District Court of Appeals unanimously reversed the trial court ruling which found Prade “actually innocent” of his ex-wife’s murder.The appellate court found that now retired Common Pleas Judge Judy Hunter abused her discretion in concluding that no reasonable fact finder would have found Prade guilty in light of all the available admissible evidence, including the new DNA results that excluded him as the source of crime scene evidence.

Student Contributor Cameron Downer has written this summary of the significant aspects of the case.

Background on the Murder

Prade and Margo met in 1974, when she was about 18 years old and he was about 28 years old. The couple married in 1979 and had two daughters during the course of their marriage. Both Prade and Margo were successful in their careers, with Prade becoming Captain for the Akron Police Department and Margo establishing her own medical practice.

The relationship was troubled. Margo expressed to friends and family that at times she feared Prade. Prade was possessive and would often show up when Margo socialized with her friends. Further, Prade secretly recorded Margo’s telephone conversations and kept the recordings.

In April 1997, Margo received an uncontested divorce and was awarded child support for the couple’s two children. Prade was very uncooperative during and after the divorce and remained in the marital home several months afterwards. Even though Margo changed the locks on the house, Prade would obtain his daughter’s key to gain entrance. In addition, Prade was seen accessing Margo’s medical office at night.

In the morning of November 26, 1997, Margo arrived at her medical office in her van. Subsequently, a man entered the van with a .38 special revolver. Margo was shot three times before her assailant forcefully pulled her forward, ripping three buttons from her lab coat in the process, and shot her three more times. The assailant did not take any items from the van, including a large amount of jewelry and Margo’s purse.

The Bite Mark and Evidence at Trial

At trial, the key piece of physical evidence was a bite mark that the killer made on Margo’s arm through her blouse and lab coat. Because of the limitations of then-existing DNA technology, the only DNA that could be conclusively identified was that of Margo herself.

The remaining evidence at trial was inconclusive. A surveillance tape did not positively identify the assailant, who later got into a car and drove away. The car was never located, nor was the murder weapon. The state presented two eyewitnesses, one of whom only came forward after seeing Prade’s picture in the media nine months later. The other witness failed to identify anyone during his first two police interviews, but during his third interview, he identified Prade as the man inside the car. In his defense, Prade put on an alibi witnesses stating he was working out at a gym during the time of the murder.

Prade was convicted and sentenced to life in prison. He has always maintained his innocence.

Post Conviction DNA Testing

In 2004 and 2008, Prade applied for post-conviction DNA testing to reevaluate the bite mark evidence in his case. Under the statute, an inmate could not receive post-conviction DNA testing when a prior definitive test had already been conducted.  “Definitive” is not defined in the statute. Prade’s applications were dismissed by the trial court and the Ninth District Court affirmed the dismissal. In 2010, in a 4-2 decision authored by Justice Stratton, the Ohio Supreme Court reversed the dismissal of Prade’s  second application, after finding the original testing was not “definitive.”  The Court held that a prior DNA test is not “definitive” within the meaning of R.C. 2953.74(A) when a new DNA testing method can detect information that could not be detected by the prior DNA test.

On remand, Common Pleas Judge Judy Hunter ordered re-testing of the bite mark DNA with current, more sophisticated testing methods. The DNA testing was done by DNA Diagnostics Center of Fairfield Ohio and took two years to complete.

In October 2012, Judge Hunter heard four days of expert testimony on the meaning and outcome of the new DNA test results. Ultimately, she concluded that based on all the evidence available, including the most recent DNA testing, Prade was “actually innocent” of aggravated murder. Judge Hunter’s key finding was that current DNA testing established that Prade was conclusively excluded as the contributor of the male DNA of the bite mark section of Margo’s lab coat.

Judge Hunter granted Prade’s petition for post conviction relief. Prade was released from prison on January 29, 2013.

The state filed an appeal from the order granting Prade’s petition for post conviction relief. The Ninth District Court of Appeals reversed.

Ninth District Reversal

The Ninth District opinion reads much more like a de novo review of the entire record in the case, including the evidence of the DNA exclusion results, than an abuse of discretion review of Judge Hunter’s decision granting post conviction relief. The opinion focuses heavily on all of the circumstantial evidence in the case, such as Prade’s troubling behavior during and after the marriage, as well as the fact that , shortly before the murder, Prade calculated how much money he would receive from life insurance if Margo die.  In doing so, the court concluded that there is little significance in the new DNA results.

The opinion stated, “[f]or almost 15 years, the bite mark section of Margo’s lab coat has been preserved and has endured exhaustive sampling and testing in the hopes of discovering the true identity of Margo’s killer. The only absolute conclusion that can be drawn from the DNA results, however, is that their true meaning will never be known.”

Overall, the court concluded four things. First, that the new DNA results generate more questions than answers. Second, the state presented a great deal of evidence at trial that supported a guilty verdict. Third, the jury was in the best position to weigh the credibility of the eyewitnesses and to decide what weight, if any, to accord the individual experts who testified at trial. Lastly, that the trial court abused its discretion when it granted Prade’s post-conviction relief petition.

Where Does This Leave Prade?

On March 19, 2014, the same day that the Ninth District decision was released, Prade filed a Notice of Appeal and Motion for Immediate Stay of Execution of Judgment Mandate.  The following day, Prade turned himself into Summit County Jail in order to prevent a warrant from being issued for his arrest.

After only being in jail for a few hours, Prade was released after the Supreme Court of Ohio ordered the temporary stay of execution on the judgment until the merits of Prade’s motion can be heard. The docket for the appeal can be accessed here.

Stay tuned for further developments, which are likely to be hyper technical aspects of appellate review.

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