Douglas Prade, a former Akron Police Captain, was convicted and sentenced to life in prison for the alleged murder of his ex-wife, Dr. Margo Prade, who was shot and killed in her van outside of work in 1997.
Prade was primarily convicted on the basis of a bite mark that was made through Dr. Prade’s lab coat. While the DNA technology at the time of his conviction could only conclusively identify the DNA of Dr. Prade herself, Ohio’s DNA testing statutes enacted in 2003 opened the door for the re-testing of DNA with improved technology.
With the help of the Ohio Innocence Project at the University of Cincinnat College of Law and the Jones Day law firm, Prade successfully appealed his case on the basis of this new DNA technology. Given the availability of new technology and the fact that the DNA test used at the time of Prade’s conviction did not definitively exclude him, in 2010, the Supreme Court of Ohio held in this decision that the DNA test in the Prade case was not definitive, and remanded the case in 2010 to determine whether new DNA evidence would be outcome determinative.
Following a re-testing of the DNA and a hearing on the outcome of the test results in 2012, now retired Summit County Common Pleas Court Judge Judy Hunter held that the DNA testing conclusively excluded Prade as a contributor to the male DNA on the area of Dr. Prade’s lab coat where the perpetrator bit her.
Judge Hunter concluded Prade was actually innocent, and ordered his release from prison. Additionally, Judge Hunter held that in the event that her grant of exoneration was overturned, Prade’s motion for a new trial was granted. On January 29, 2013, Prade was released from prison.
However, on March 19, 2014, the Ninth District Court of Appeals overturned Judge Hunter’s decision. Even in spite of the new DNA results, the appeals court concluded that remaining circumstantial evidence presented by the State still supported the jury’s guilty verdict. As a result, the court unanimously reversed Judge Hunter’s finding of actual innocence. Hunter’s conditional grant of a new trial was not part of this appeal.
The same day of the appellate decision, Prade filed a Notice of Appeal and Motion for Immediate Stay of Execution of Judgment Mandate. He also turned himself into jail to prevent a warrant for his arrest, but was released within hours by the Supreme Court of Ohio’s temporary stay of execution on the judgment until it could determine whether to accept his case.
On July 23, 2014, the Supreme Court of Ohio, by a vote of 4-3, declined to hear Prade’s appeal (Chief Justice O’Connor has recused herself from the case, as she was once Summit County Prosecutor. Second District Court of Appeals Judge Jeffrey Froehlich sat for the Chief.) Two days later, Summit County Court of Common Pleas Judge Christine Croce, who is now hearing the case, held that Prade should go back to jail while awaiting his hearing to determine if he would get new trial.
In arguing for a new trial, Prade asserted that the new DNA evidence warrants a new trial. The prosecution, however, contended that the new DNA evidence does not provide anything additional and that the overwhelming circumstantial evidence in the case supports his guilty verdict. On June 12, 2015, after hearing arguments on the matter, Judge Croce ordered Prade back to prison instead of the Summit County Jail while he awaits her decision.
On August 6, 2015, Judge Croce issued an order setting a hearing and limiting the evidence at that hearing to newly discovered DNA evidence only. This hearing took place on November 4, 2015. Both parties filed post-hearing briefs on the issue as well.
On March 11, 2016, Judge Croce denied Prade’s motion for a new trial. Croce held that Prade had “failed to demonstrate that the alleged new bite mark and eyewitness evidence establishes a strong probability that it would change the result (verdict) had it been available and/or presented at trial.” Although Judge Croce acknowledged that Prade was definitively excluded from the male DNA found on the victim’s lab coat, she called the DNA results “inconclusive.” Specifically, Croce opined that the material could have come from contamination. Croce also held that doubts about the original 1996 bitemark matching testimony was not enough to warrant a new trial. Instead, Judge Croce echoed the Ninth District’s concern regarding the strong circumstantial evidence against Prade, including a heated divorce proceeding prior to the murder. Read Judge Croce’s entire decision here.
I think we can expect another appeal in this case, but the Ninth District Court of Appeals was most unsympathetic to the last one.