What Happened on Remand: Cleveland Trial Judge Finally Decides Iran Doss Was Not Wrongfully Imprisoned. Doss v. State.

Update: On August 24, 2016, Doss filed a notice of appeal from Judge Villaneuva’s decision.

Case Background.

On New Year’s Eve 2004, 23-year-old J.P. came from Ravenna to celebrate with friends at a club in Cleveland.  She consumed a large number of alcoholic drinks throughout the night, and awoke the next morning in an unfamiliar apartment wearing unfamiliar clothes, and no underwear. There she encountered two people she did not know–Iran Doss and his then girlfriend Eileen Wiles. The two had driven her to their place. She knew neither of them. They claimed to have found her disoriented at the club where she had been drinking, and that they took her home as good Samaritans. The two drove her back to Ravenna the next day.

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 sex with J.P., but maintained that it was consensual.  J.P. testified that, although she could not remember what happened that night, given her condition she would not have been able to consent.  Doss did not testify at his criminal trial, nor did Wiles. The jury convicted Doss of rape and kidnapping. He was sentenced to four years in prison.

Doss appealed his conviction.  The Eighth District Court of Appeals vacated the 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 appeals court vacated the convictions, and ordered Doss released from prison.  The Supreme Court of Ohio denied the State’s request for review.

Civil Action Against the State for Wrongful Imprisonment

The Key Statute

R.C. 2743.48(A)  A wrongfully imprisoned person means an individual who satisfies all of the following: (only the second part of section 5 is pertinent to this appeal; proof of the factors in sections 1-4 was undisputed, and the first part of section (5) is not applicable.)

(5) …[I]t was determined by the court of common pleas in the county where the underlying criminal action was initiated that the charged offense, including all lesser-included offenses, either was not committed by the individual or was not committed by any person.

Doss’ Lawsuit

Upon his release from prison, 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 trial 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.

The state appealed and the Eighth District affirmed the trial court, in a split decision. The state then appealed the case to the Supreme Court of Ohio, which accepted jurisdiction.

Merit Decision

On December 6, 2012, the Supreme Court handed down a merit decision in Doss v. State, 2012-Ohio-5678.  In a unanimous opinion written by Justice Lanzinger, the court of appeals was reversed. The Supreme Court of Ohio held that Doss was not entitled to summary judgment on his claim for the right to seek compensation as a wrongfully imprisoned person just because the court of appeals reversed and vacated his conviction and ordered his immediate release.  The second paragraph of the case syllabus reads, “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.” Read a complete analysis of the merit decision here.

The case was remanded back to the trial court for further proceedings, in which Doss would be required to prove by a preponderance of the evidence that he was a wrongfully imprisoned person.

What Happened on Remand

The only section of the wrongful imprisonment statute at issue in this case is the second part of R.C. 2743.38(A)(5), quoted above. Thus, to prevail, Doss would have to show by a preponderance of the evidence either that he did not commit the charged offense or any lesser included offense, or that no crime was committed at all (actual innocence).

On remand from the Supreme Court of Ohio, a day and a half bench trial was held beginning August 26, 2013, before Cuyahoga County Court of Common Pleas Judge Jose Villaneuva. Three witnesses testified in the civil trial.  Doss testified in his case in chief.  J.P. and Eileen Wiles testified for the state (Wiles did so reluctantly. As a result of the incident, she was also criminally charged, pled to one count of abduction, and was placed on five years of community control).  Judge Villaneuva then requested post trial briefs, which were submitted on September 4, 2013. Read about this more fully here. On November 26, 2013, Judge Villaneuva ordered a copy of the transcript for his own use.

After the case had been pending for nearly two and a half years without a decision, on April 19, 2016, the state filed a motion requesting the judge to make a decision within 45 days, or it would file a writ of procedendo with the Eighth District Court of Appeals. In its motion, the state argued that the unnecessary delay was unwarranted and unfair to all parties involved. The state also stressed that if Judge Villaneuva did not render a decision before leaving office at the end of his term on December 31, 2016, (Judge Villaneuva is not seeking re-election) it may be necessary to re-try the case since a successor judge cannot make credibility determinations from the trial transcripts.

Trial Court’s Finding: No Wrongful Imprisonment

On July 26, 2016, Judge Villaneuva, in an extensive and thorough opinion, found that Doss had failed to prove that he was a wrongfully imprisoned person. The judge found that any reasonable trier of fact would find that any sexual activity that took place with J.P. was not consensual, that Doss was aware of J.P.’s intoxicated condition, and that a reasonable jury could have returned verdicts against him for both rape and kidnapping.

In his opinion, the judge carefully and thoroughly reviewed the transcript  and evidence from the criminal case, and the testimony in the civil case. In analyzing what happened that New Year’s eve, the judge found significant inconsistences between the testimony of Doss and Wiles. Particularly pertinent were differences in their recollection of when and how Doss and J.P. met that evening, J.P.’s level of intoxication when she left the bar, her ability to function, whose idea it was to give her a ride home, her condition when she got to their place, and what happened once they got there. In short, as is his role as trier of fact in a bench trial, the judge found Wiles’ testimony to be credible, and Doss’ not.

As a result, the judge found that Doss failed to establish that he was innocent of criminal behavior or that no crime was committed.  Accordingly, Judge Villanueva ordered judgment in favor of the state on Doss’s claim for wrongful imprisonment. Read the complete decision here.

Doss can still appeal this ruling, but I’d say his chances of succeeding on appeal are slim to none.

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